gina thornhill, jessica barry & lesley smith
Once Upon a Theatre Collective’s mandate is a deep-rooted belief that play is the essence of theatre. Their newest production, Eric Overmyer’s On the Verge, playing until June 11th, 2011 at the Bus Stop Theatre in Halifax, is an exuberant celebration of imagination, adventure and make believe.
The play centers on three late Victorian/Early Edwardian American polytopians, that is, explorers of many places, who form a fierce friendship in the face of a very strange, fanciful and daring journey through the jungles and other terra incognita of language and the human spirit. What is most immediately striking about Overmyer’s play is his use of language. His three protagonists are wordsmiths with the most succulent perspicacity. The grandiloquent words that are used are all ones that are delightful to say, as well as to hear, most of which have fallen much out of favour with the passage of time. This distinctive vocabulary roots the three protagonists in their place, not only in history, but in their socio-economic stature as well and the slight variations amongst the way that each one uses words and her fascination with them speaks volumes of each distinct personality.
Since Overmyer spends so much of the play focused on language and the action of his characters’ escapades and hijinks, the plot and its character development does not draw a lot of attention to itself, until it sneaks up upon you in the Second Act. Yet once you find yourself immersed in it, the story that is woven is distinctly quirky and marked by a playful imagination and a firm sense of infinite possibility. It is also a play that presents challenges to its director. In a modest space with a limited budget it can be difficult to portray expansive expeditions into wildernesses without the production veering into hokey terrain. There is also a lot of letter and journal reading and writing, which is often a hallmark of poorly constructed plays. Yet, under the inspired direction of Sarah D. McCarthy, On the Verge rises above such trifles in a metaphorical dirigible of dexterous playfulness. The joy and commitment that emanate from the actors onstage ignite the audience’s sense of make believe and allow us to see beyond what is present, and with a simple, but effective soundscape, we are transported beyond the theatre and into a world like a child’s toy box, where anything is everything. There are some especially magical moments involving umbrellas, fierce winds and a knotted rope bridge.
I was reminded ardently of The Muppet Babies, a cartoon that I loved ardently as a child, especially with McCarthy’s use of projected images to help set the backdrop for each adventure. In The Muppet Babies, the Muppet characters would play make believe in their nursery and the cartoon would sometimes cut to black and white clips, which looked like old movies, which depicted what the Muppets were imagining themselves to be as they played. The cartoon was always being played on both levels, the Muppets being themselves but also playing at every other conceivable thing. In On The Verge, I felt like the three protagonists and their sporadic visiting guests could all be the imagined alter egos of four very precocious children. Of course, no child would realistically speak with such bombastic pretence, but it seems to me that Mary, Fanny and Alexandra speak in a way that children try to emulate when pretending to be grown up. The Second Act may find you thinking about Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire”, which is just as fascinating although entirely different.
The acting in this production is pitch perfect in its ability to create a solid relationship that the audience can invest in for the duration of the play as well as filling the stage with earnest joy, wonder and delight which is utterly infectious. Zach Faye shows impressive diversity playing everything from a Chinese “Dragon Lady” to an Abominable Snow Man. He shines brightest as Alphonse, a cannibal who, channelling a bit of Snoopy, in an odd bit of osmosis turns into the German pilot he had for supper. It’s difficult to explain, but Faye is both charming and hilarious and his accent is perfect. Gina Thornhill plays Fanny, a dignified explorer with impassioned opinions who prizes love among the greatest of her adventures. Thornhill is a delight in this role and blooms breathtakingly in a surprise plot twist in the Second Act. Lesley Smith plays Alexandra, the youngest and most exuberant, with a penchant for rhyme and slight, and very endearing, malapropism. Smith lights Alexandra up brightly, but also gives her a nice sense of empowerment and sharp comic timing. Jessica Barry plays Mary, the scholarly, reserved, anthropologist, continually fascinated and filled to the brim with propriety. Barry speaks every single one of her lines as though it is the uncontested truth, like a long-lost character from a Lucy Maud Montgomery novel. Mary is the most formidable woman of the trio, and Barry gives a truly formidable performance.
There is a YouTube video that I watched years ago that I cannot find nor properly remember where an artist of some kind is a guest on a talk show and he speaks about how we get so complacent about life that we take miracles for granted every day. He cites flying in an airplane as a definitive example. We are defying the laws of gravity, and yet so few of us experience any wonder in it. On the Verge is a play that is jubilant about life’s simple treasures: cool whip, cream cheese, an egg beater, an umbrella, a metal button, a Jacuzzi, friendship. It paints the world like a child might draw it and dares you to come in and have fun.