rebecca northan, julie orton, daniela vlaskalic
photo by joel charlebois.
I have a secret to share with you all. There is a secret play at a secret place which is presented by some of this country’s finest theatre actors, directed by one equally distinguished Canadian artist and presented in the quaint ambiance of a salon.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this tradition, the salon began in Italy in the 16th Century, but really flourished in France during the 17th and 18th Centuries. The conceit of these evenings was a gathering of minds, within the society of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine taste and increase their knowledge through conversation. Often the guests would gather to watch or to participate in a literary, musical or theatrical exploit, which emerged organically out of the conversation and then, once the performance aspect of the evening was finished, the guests would fluidly continue to speak, philosophize and ruminate on what they had seen, or take in topics altogether different with one another and with their host.
It was in this way that I came upon a secret place (one that was revealed to me only after I booked my ticket) and sat in a lovely, and surprisingly theatrical space, on a rocking chair in fact, drinking ginger ale (there was also wine, you’re encouraged to bring your own) and eating pretzels, while chatting with a handful of guests, mingling with the three actors who were going to be performing for us, and feeling a real sense of society that I don’t think we really ever feel anymore, except at house parties, where we are actually encouraged to strike up conversations with strangers and to really connect with one another and discuss the experience that we are having in the moment we are having it.
The play that we were treated to was David Mamet’s Boston Marriage, a bit of an obscure little gem which was originally produced by the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1999. The show is set at the turn of the twentieth century and focuses on the relationship between Claire and Anna, two unwed women nearing forty who are engaged in a relationship which is extremely close and suggests, especially in this production, that their bond may have been a physical as well as an emotional one. Mamet has constructed this play in a delightful way in that it is a classic comedy of manners, with all the Victorian conventions of the well-made play, yet wryly being used ironically so that the end result is sort of what one would expect if David Mamet were to write an Oscar Wilde play about women. The characters speak in language so witty and so verbose that one could only wish to be so deftly eloquent, and even in Victorian England I think one would need to walk with thesaurus promptly in hand at all times in order to be quite so loquaciously grandiloquent. Mamet seems to have written the play, not unlike Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, on two planes, the surface, on which our characters have constructed their carefully molded facades, and the subtext, out of which we can see aspects of pure emotion, and also are given enough intellectual stimulation to delve deeply into issues of gender, colonialism and post-modernity. It is a dense little play, which still has manages to keep the delights and joyfulness of a frothy one.
Rebecca Northan plays Anna, who has the biggest penchant for rambling and extreme bouts of emotion, and of course, she plays this part with wicked, smart, wild abandon of hilarity. Her complete dismissal of her maid, Catherine, is a running gag in the play, and Northan infuses Anna with so much haughtiness, she regards the girl as barely being human, but her fierce comic timing keeps these moments from being as cruel as reality would have them. Indeed, Anna is not very nice at all, but Northan endears her to us through comedy and then manages to twist the entire play around as the slight revelations of her truth manage to peak out of her veneer. As such, she can elicit pathos and laughter at the same time, which I think is the measure of a brilliant comic actor. Daniela Vlaskalic plays Claire, a high strung woman hoping to seduce a much younger girl and needing desperately for Anna to help her in her pursuits. Vlaskalic’s Claire has perfect rapport with Northan’s Anna. It’s immediately clear that these two women know exactly how to push each other’s buttons, and thrive on doing so, and while Northan goes on endless tirades, it’s often Vlaskalic, cutting through her, that packs the most powerful comedic punch. She also has an amazing awful Scottish brogue that she employs condescendingly with the maid which is such fun and the way that she uses Mamet’s language, as though perpetually scandalized, yet mischievously delighted by every consonant that she speaks, makes for a delicious performance. Julie Orton plays the much put-upon Scottish maid, as sharp in her naiveté as Claire and Anna are in their wit, which makes perfect opportunity for word play, double entendre and downright silliness. I particularly enjoy the slight smile that Orton’s maid sometimes has, which betrays her sense that Claire and Anna are kind of bonkers, and aligns her nicely with the audience, who likely has the same impression.
I was struck by how economical Ted Dykstra’s direction of the play was, as far as movement is concerned, in that, the characters only move when there is a clear obligation for them to do so. This creates a nice sense of the languid atmosphere that women of this class would have enjoyed at this time in history, yet also emphasizes how stagnant a body can be, while the mind and the tongue are incessantly in motion. Dykstra also manages to find a steady balance for the surface and more comical side of the play to thrive, while the subtext offers the audience something of more substance to latch onto, without allowing one to undercut the other.
I share this secret play with you in hopes that you will succumb to the curiosity of the sex (either one) and check it out for yourselves. It is a treat.
Boston Marriage plays Thursday January 27th 2011 to Saturday January 29th 2011. Doors at 7:30pm SHARP. For more information- visit this top secret website. I would book early and fast because there are only thirty seats each night and they have been selling out like hotcakes on a banana boat.