This Blackbird is Dark but It Might Not Provoke You

It seems like everyone these days wants to be provocative and the mandate of Studio 180 , whose play Blackbird is playing until April 4th, 2009 at the Berkeley Street Downstairs theatre, is to provoke a dialogue in the audience long after the curtain call. The issue I am having is that I’m not sure I would categorize David Harrower’s play as “provocative.” I will try not to give too much of the plot away, as I think the production gains much of its momentum and power from information being revealed in the moment. That being said, Blackbird without a doubt tackles social taboos and situations that audience members may find disgusting, offensive, off putting, or that might make them feel a little queasy around the belly button. But, I don’t think the subject matter is necessarily shocking or as closeted as it may at first appear, after all, this was all covered, and very eloquently, poetically and controversially, by Vladimir Nabokov in 1955. 1955!! And as a girl who has read Nabokov’s novel and who adores it, despite the nauseated feeling it gives her by times in the belly, I felt that I recognized Blackbird straight away, I could see where it was going, and I felt as though I had heard it before and had thought about the moral ambiguities before and that Harrower wasn’t offering up anything new that Nabokov hadn’t already launched into my brain. Am I too hard to provoke now? Have I really seen it all? Nothing shocks me anymore?
That said, David Harrower is an extremely proficient playwright and his dialogue is as disjointed as an After Liverpool scene, but far more poetic. There are explosive moments, high stakes all build around pain, anger, shame, passion and confrontation. Dark humor sits amid heartbreak and the characters slide between seeming entirely genuine, rational and realistic, and being utterly absurd and perverse. Michael Gianfrancesco’s garbage laden set immediately roots the audience somewhere seedy, a place where people are overrun with rubbish and lives have exploded into mounds of crap. The play is well directed by Joel Greenberg, Studio 180’s Artistic Director, in particular, a blackout fills the theatre with remarkable tense eeriness, and then everything turns on a dime with the entrance of Samantha Somer Wilson. Greenberg makes no attempt to tie the play up into a neat little package, or to provide the audience with a moral compass to help them navigate through these characters’ journeys.
Hardee T. Lineham is brilliant as Ray, a man obviously guilt-ridden, filled with shame and self-loathing, who has tried ardently to bury his past mistakes and repress his questionable emotions and desires. It is unclear though throughout Lineham’s performance, how successful Ray has been at quelling the beast inside of him. He is entirely ambiguous and the audience is never sure when he is being heartfelt and genuine, or whether he is a very skilled liar. Jessica Greenberg plays Una, a traumatized woman who still reacts as though she were a very little girl, with a very limited spectrum from which to choose her responses. She struggles to grow up, to put her past behind her, but she is stuck. She is an immature girl unable to decide whether she wants to take the steps toward maturity or to stay in the ambiguous world that has caused her so much pain, confusion, and ecstasy. Greenberg and Lineham both have the ability to fuse their characters with so much confusion and contradiction, without making them appear sloppily portrayed.
It is nice to see theatre companies not shying away from material, that although it was thrown rather unabashedly into the world of literature in 1955, is still gritty, taboo, and that can stimulate fruitful discussions about morality, sexuality and consent. The performances in Blackbird are absolutely worth seeing, and who knows, you may even find the show provocative! Blackbird plays at the Berkeley Downstairs Theatre until April 4th, 2009. 26 Berkeley Street. For tickets please call 416 368-3110 or visit http://www.studio180.ca/

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