martha ross, leah cherniak, ann-marie macdonald
In November 2009 I had the great fortune to attend a reading of Theatre Columbus’ newest play, More Fine Girls, which is currently in previews at the Tarragon Theatre, opening on March 1st, 2011 in the Mainspace. I will review the current production, which has obviously undergone all the rewrites of rehearsal that any collective creation does, in greater depth once it opens, but I also stand behind my initial assessment, which I have copied below so that you can read it for the first time or refresh your memories. Go see this play. These women are brilliant.
“A packed audience crammed into the Near Studio at Tarragon Theatre last night to listen to the “rough first draft” of what co-creators Jennifer Brewin, Leah Cherniak, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Alisa Palmer and Martha Ross have temporarily called “The Attic Sequel.” The play follows the three sisters, JoJo, Jayne and Jelly, whom audiences were introduced to in Theatre Columbus’ 1995 production of The Attic, the Pearls and 3 Fine Girls as they find the combined strength and insight into one another’s experience that allows them to descend from the Attic into the eerie abandoned basement.
Jennifer Brewin introduced the evening saying that she, Cherniak, MacDonald, Palmer and Ross came together initially because they wanted to “work in a certain way,” although she added with an amused smile that, even over a decade later, they are still not sure what that means. Within the first five minutes of the reading, it became clear to me that regardless of the logistics of this “certain way”, it is magical in its ability to create extraordinarily entertaining theatre. Also, these five women are divine.
This is going to be one of those plays that will reverberate throughout the city with a buzz rival to a beehive. It reminded me of a classic Woody Allen film, something like Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), only rooted firmly in the perspectives of its three uproariously hilarious, endearingly quirky protagonists. The sisters are rooted firmly in circumstances that are so familiar, while still elevating this particular story toward the exceptional and the unexpected. I recognized JoJo, Jayne and Jelly immediately as Carol, Joan and Shirley Campbell, my mother and her two older sisters. I overheard a woman near to me telling those that she was with that, as the youngest of three sisters, she could vouch that this play was, “exactly what it was like.” Alas, if only reality were this much fun!
Martha Ross plays JoJo, an English Professor in love with Brecht, the eldest sister with a habit of snooping, a fear of intimacy, and a tendency toward crying. Although the three performers were reading from their scripts, I was so swept away by the characters that they had created, I rarely noticed. Ross inhabits JoJo so fully, so simply and with such nuance, you can tell that she is easing back into a role that is comfortable and well-fitting. Leah Cherniak plays Jelly, the youngest, an eccentric artist and mother to twelve year old Jessie who feels utterly dominated and enveloped by her sisters’ assertive personalities. Cherniak captures a nice balance between characterizing Jelly as both occupied in the mundane affairs of a working mother and seeming strangely off-kilter, so that the audience, like JoJo and Jayne, are unsure whether or not her behavior is any cause for concern. Ann-Marie MacDonald is utterly hysterical as Jayne, the middle child, whose dialogue is incredibly well crafted and beautifully inventive. From her corporate due diligence rants, to her New Age quest for inner balance and Keen-Wah, MacDonald’s performance was an absolute pleasure to watch.
There is such fun in this play, including hilarious cell phone antics and a particularly clever phone call to IKEA, and at the same time, the sisters’ relationships are so rich and complex. I was especially riveted by the difference between Jelly’s relationship with JoJo versus how she related to Jayne, and then how differently Jayne and JoJo related to one another in contrast to the way each one responded to her youngest sister. It is clear that Brewin, Cherniak, MacDonald, Palmer and Ross know enough about these characters to write, likely, four or five plays and that they are still in the process of honing in on the specifics of this one particular play in an entire saga of JoJo, Jayne and Jelly stories. They read the first portion of their play last night at the Tarragon, then Palmer summarized some of the middle segments, the performers read a few select scenes and then we heard the ending. For this reason, I found that sometimes throughout the middle and the end of the evening, it was like listening to someone tell a story who is so submerged in what they are saying that they forget that you need a bit more context in order to understand the whole picture. Yet, in this instance, the characters and the storytellers were so fascinating that I was pulled right along with them regardless.
I know that this play is going to be an incredible piece of theatre onstage someday soon because even in its “rough first draft,” before rehearsals and rewrites have even begun, it already is.”
More Fine Girls plays at the Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Avenue) until April 3rd, 2011 for more information or to book your tickets please visit www.tarragontheatre.ca or call 416.531.1827.
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