Wide Awake Hearts: Drama is Conflict

raoul bhaneja and gord rand
photo by cylla von tiedemann
Almost exactly a year ago I attended Tarragon Theatre’s Play Reading Week (which runs this year November 21st-27th, 2010 and I highly, highly recommend it!); I had the great privilege of hearing Brendan Gall’s play Wide Awake Hearts being brought to life by four very talented actors. I waited with much anticipation for this play to be produced, and now, with a new cast of performers and director Gina Wilkinson at the helm, it plays at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space until December 12th, 2010.
The play centers on a paranoid screenwriter who is convinced that his wife and his best friend, both film actors, are either involved in a clandestine love affair or are harbouring intensely passionate feelings for one another that are apt to explode at any moment. The screenwriter, so fraught with these feelings of jealousy and anxiety, is compelled to not just use his art to explore these ideas, but, with a certain degree of masochism, plays out his suspicions in his newest film, casting his best friend and his wife as the secret lovers. In this way, it is unknown whether the writer has created his own reality, or accelerated the inevitable as his marriage threatens to crack under the pressure of making this movie.
Brendan Gall has constructed this play intricately so that the audience is not always certain which scenes belong to the reality of the two actors and which take place in the fictional world of the movie. In this way, we mirror the screenwriter’s journey of continually assuming, sometimes incorrectly, and piecing together the dynamics of the relationship between best friend and wife. In this construction, Gall is also raising the question of how we define artifice. How does an onscreen kiss between two actors differ from one between a married couple? Does approximating the actions involved in sex as part of one’s work completely devalue the intimacy involved? One of the characters argues that we are all actors alluding to the fallacy involved with real-life relationships, which further complicates where the line is drawn between fantasy and reality.
This is reflected very clearly in Gall’s dialogue, as all four of his characters; the screenwriter, two actors, and the editor; are all clever, witty and pepper the conversation with intelligent popular culture and literary references. In this way, it is clear that these people care very much about the way that they present themselves to one another, despite the fact that their intimate relationships suggest that they should be on more colloquial terms. There is no room for emotional vulnerability between the set up and the punch lines, and that is why these four people are unable to connect.
Gina Wilkinson directs the play in a very interesting way, using sleek and crisp filmic elements which help to blur the lines between what is being said when the camera is rolling and what is not. The action also unfolds often in the corners of the stage, in darkness and in shadow, which reflects nicely the sense of secrecy and concealment implicit to each interaction. Keeping with the filmic theme, Wilkinson also makes nice use of projected performance footage, which melds into and overlaps with a live scene between the same two  actors, which draws a strong visual parallel to the themes of the play. Also, the credits of the performance are rolled twice, as an opening and an end to the production. Although they are obviously appropriate for this particular play, the convention of having credits is one that an increasing number of theatre directors are playing with in the contemporary theatre. I have heard criticisms that they are attempting to turn theatre into something that it isn’t, and that the addition of credits is the theatre appropriating a film blueprint that may limit the way that the experience is received by its audience. However, I think that practically speaking, having credits roll before the play begins actually is quite beneficial as far as encouraging the audience to absorb the names of those involved with the production. Not everyone looks at the programmes that they are given at the theatre, and one of the reasons that we recognize names associated with films, and one of the ways that our society creates celebrity, is in broadcasting these names continually through this sort of promotional material. I think in this spirit, it is fantastic for our theatre companies to give this acknowledgement to the artists involved in the creation of plays so that the theatre is not seen by the majority of its audience members as something made up of nameless anonymous Canadians.
I think Brendan Gall has created a very challenging world for his four actors to play within, and that because the characters hide behind facade, both in performance and in life, nearly all of the time, it is difficult for the actors playing them to root themselves in a genuine place. Gord Rand plays the screenwriter, and at times his rhythm of speech, hiding behind endless tirades, is perfect, when other times he seems a bit too disconnected, a bit too lost in his drunkenness, that the audience can no longer engage with him like they need to. Lesley Faulkner plays his wife, the leading actress, and she also finds it difficult to root herself in real emotion rather than relying on the semblance of it. I would have liked for Faulkner to give this wife a bit more edge, a bit more bite and intensity, and to give a much needed spark to her collisions with both her husband and his best friend.
Raoul Bhaneja gave a beautifully tormented performance as the best friend, a dissatisfied actor, milling about like Hamlet unable to act. He provided much of the tension, both in his scenes with Rand and with Faulkner, which proved most captivating for the audience. Bhaneja is brilliant also in his ability to portray a character who seems quite disinterested and bored with everything, without becoming boring himself. The star of this show, however, is undoubtedly Maev Beaty, as the film’s editor and girlfriend of Bhaneja’s character. From the moment she bursts on the scene, teaming with bright intensity, she is immediately fascinating. Her character has profound depth, she is cold, aloof and protective of herself, but the audience is also aware of the layers that Beaty has plied her with that exist just below the surface. She has a line at the end of the play saying that her job as an editor is to be invisible, that she should not leave her mark on the film, the moment you realize that someone is there manipulating the way you see the story, the magic is gone. In many ways, actors too should be invisible; their performances should be that seamless. Maev Beaty is a perfect example of how powerful seamlessness is to watch in this production.
I found that there were certain aspects of this play that I preferred from the reading a year ago, but there were definitely other choices that I felt were much stronger and more exciting in the staged version. I didn’t find that I was so removed from the characters that I was entirely apathetic to their plight, but I did find Gall’s commentary on how wit, humour and our society’s obsession with art mirroring life mirroring art makes for challenging connections in the postmodern world to be both inspired and entertaining.

Wide Awake Hearts plays at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space (30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto) until December 12th, 2010. For more information or to book your tickets please call 416.531.1827 or visit this website http://www.tarragontheatre.com.

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