A Credit to the Coal Mine Theatre

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liisa repo-martell & noah reid photo by michael cooper

Every once and awhile a production of a play comes along that leaves you so breathless and, ultimately, so entirely satisfied that words allude you, because everything you think to say falls short of capturing that perfect, ephemeral, living, breathing, reverberating theatrical experience. Sometimes the most important words are a simple “Go see it.” Creditors by August Strindberg now playing at The Coal Mine Theatre is one such production.

Strindberg considered Creditors (1889) his “most mature work,” although it is the much lesser-known Irish twin to the much-produced Miss Julie (1888), often considered Strindberg’s seminal play. Like Miss Julie, Creditors is a constructed as a triangle, although in this case we have two men, the young artist Adolph and the older teacher, Gustav, and the free spirited novelist Tekla who finds herself, like Julie, caught in a web fashioned of societal constructs that attempt to drain the life from her cheeks and the freedom from her heart.

The play begins with Tekla’s husband, Adolph, emotionally exhausted by a a churning, insecure mind, physically lame and requiring crutches, grasping onto his new friend, older, wise, Gustav, in the desperate hope that he will replenish him and make him strong enough to return to his creativity and faith in his talent as an artist. Yet, from the onset Gustav begins to slyly do the very opposite for poor Adolph. Like Iago with Othello, Gustav plants an entire garden’s-worth of seeds of doubt in Adolph’s ear. Surely he cannot believe there is a future in painting. Surely he must not trust his wife, considering that their own relationship began as an affair she had while married to her first husband. Has he heard all the gossip everyone has been spreading about them? It’s clear to everyone that he is being played for a fool. In fact, it seems like Adolph is on death’s door and has been driven thus by a philandering wife. Gustav latches on to every worry that Adolph has ever even briefly considered and deftly turns molehills to mountains and then to monsters that seek to devour even the possibility of joy from him just in time to greet Tekla, returning from a week away from home.

It quickly becomes apparent that Creditors is a play centred on the concept of revenge, of having been hurt so thoroughly that one is completely consumed with the torture and annihilation of those who have betrayed him. To Adolph, Gustav first verbally attacks Tekla, and indeed all women, as being vicious, selfish, leeches, appropriating knowledge, power and influence from their husbands to intentionally leave them weak, carcasses of their former selves. He builds himself up into such a misogynistic frenzy that the audience can’t help but laugh, delightedly, at his absurdity. It is incredible to see a play from 1889 that has pushed anti-feminist rhetoric to such an extreme that it inherently makes a mockery of itself. Yet, while the audience guffaws and triumphs, Adolph finds it difficult not to be sucked in by the nagging doubts concerning his wife’s fidelity. He loves her too much. She is too beautiful, too charming, too alluring, to possibly love him the way she says she does. Once Adolph has been convinced of his need to exert his masculine dominance over a wife who must be conquered and tamed, the trap has been set

Noah Reid gives Adolph a beautiful agonized desperation as he oscillates between mistrusting his friend and mistrusting his wife, and every ounce of his self-confidence crumbles in on him. Subtlety, Reid is able to give the audience brief glances of why the relationship between Adolph and Tekla works so well, but also alludes to the challenges that preceded the entrance of Gustav. The way he deflates when she teases him and calls him “Little Brother” betray his repressed humiliation. Yet, there are also moments when he looks at her with such tender admiration that their happily ever after seems so tangible. Liisa Repo-Martell’s Tekla is sparkling and radiant with a bright, concealing laugh that attempts to push all but the fun, frivolous and pleasurable away. She is sensual and coy, confident and refreshing, but as much as she is trying to be playful and condescending with Adolph, his strange behaviour tears a strip off her, and Repo-Martell allows Tekla’s vulnerability to shine through like a wide, cascading sunbeam. She becomes much more guarded and careful when finally confronted with Gustav, her flirtatiousness calming down into kindness as she shrinks a bit under his paternal shadow. When, at last, Repo-Martell’s Tekla realizes the horror of her predicament, it is absolutely heartbreaking.

Hardee T. Lineham’s pummelling Gustav is relentless, stone faced and with intense ire-ridden eyes. His sense of pacing, of meticulously well cautioned-steps toward bursts of carefully considered bouts of passion and urgency, is a marvel in subtext. Then he turns on a dime when faced with Tekla and even the audience’s mind is spinning trying to figure out his endgame.

In the wonderfully intimate basement theatre of the Coal Mine, under the Magic Oven, the audience faces one another, literally poised on the edge of their seats, hardly daring to breathe as Rae Ellen Bodie’s production holds the house captive and still. It’s one of those rides that finds you jarring back into consciousness during the curtain call when you suddenly become aware of the fact that you’ve been sitting in a theatre the entire time and the balloon of illusion you were floating in has just popped.

You owe it to yourself to go.

Creditors plays at The Coal Mine Theatre(798 Danforth Avenue, Toronto) until May 17. For tickets visit brownpapertickets.com.

Stubborn Antigone Refuses to Play by the Rules

I remember the first time I read Sophocles’ Antigone; it was at the beginning of my first year of my Undergraduate Degree at Dalhousie University. At seventeen, I was still searching for those clear-cut answers, and I read Antigone as a play about the oppressive ruler who acts only for what he sees as the communal good, and the tragic heroine who dares to disobey him out of honour and respect for her family. My interpretation was thus: Antigone is driven by her religious beliefs to bury her dead brother. King Creon, her uncle, has forbidden that he be buried because the state must see him as a traitor to the crown and its power. Antigone defies her uncle in a heroic sacrifice and dies at his oppressive hand. In Jean Anouilh’s 1944 adaptation of this play, which plays at Soulpepper Theatre until October 17th, 2009, these issues of villainy versus heroism become increasingly murky and densely complex.
Anouilh wrote his adaptation in France during its occupation by the Nazis. It is clear that the issues raised in this play would have been dramatically relevant for this play’s first audience. Most of France’s population had acceded to Nazi rule, mostly out of fear and hopelessness, the small Resistance, as Paula Wing writes in her programme notes, were, “like Antigone herself, a small militant minority.” Anouilh’s adaptation of Sophocles’ original skillfully retells the tale of Antigone, without changing too much of the story, yet places it in a more modern time and fleshes out the characters and their familial relationships in way that I found easy to connect to. Both Antigone and Creon seemed less like the grandiose figures of myth and more like human beings, which could be seen as deflating the sense of hamartia, or tragic flaw, in the characters. However, I found that my connecting to these characters only strengthened the interest that I had for them.
Chris Abraham directed Soulpepper’s production, and he kept the stage very dark and the actors in shadows, which produced an extremely eerie effect. Indeed, the deeds depicted in this play are all ones performed in concealment. The actors moved around the stage, surrounding the audience on three sides, which added to an eerie sense of entrapment. We were complicit to the secret of these deeds, and therefore, like Antigone, we must be carefully monitored and restricted. The feeling of being watched was also a strong presence throughout the show. There was a strange moment where David Storch, as Chorus, came onstage and stood far stage left smoking a cigarette, while Creon and Antigone had a heated argument far stage right. He did not say a word, and it is possible that some members of the audience may not have realized that he was there, but I found it to be the creepiest moment of the production. There were also small television monitors set up, which frequently were reduced to “snow,” and although they also seemed to create the illusion of a looming omnipresence, they also seemed a bit anachronistic and distracting to me.
The performances in this piece were particularly fascinating. Jordan Pettle played a beautiful Haemon, whose naïve faith and goodness was nicely offset by the world he inhabited. Jeff Lillico was wonderful as the shifty Guard, whose misogyny and arrogance disappears once he is faced with Creon, and glimmers of humanity shine through his self absorption and apathy as we see him always teetering one step from death. David Storch’s one-man chorus reminded me a bit of the Emcee from Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. He seemed unnerved at being responsible for telling such a tale, perhaps because Creon had forbidden it to be spoken. Yet, he also seemed boiling with the same rage as Antigone, a frustration and sense of rebellion, which seemed almost stuck in his throat. I don’t always find that David Storch’s intentions are clear, but I always find them intensely interesting and entirely captivating.
Liisa Repo-Martell and R.H. Thompson are not the Antigone and Creon I imagined when I was seventeen. Repo-Martell’s Antigone had a wild stubbornness that sometimes defied sense, while Thompson’s Creon was earnest, sometimes nearly tender, in a desperate attempt to save his seemingly suicidal niece. What I found so interesting about Antigone and Creon within the context of Abraham’s production were the illusions that were created both in the script, by the actors, and in the soundscape (by Richard Feren), to the fear of growing up. Repo-Martell’s Antigone had all the idealism and the stubborn, passionate, unreasonable attitude of a child. She has a line where Creon asks if she understands the reasons why he must behave the way he does as King, and Antigone responds by saying, “I don’t want to understand.” She wants the world to remain perfect and fair, the way she had perceived it as a young child and she wants Haemon to remain innocent and unaffected by the world or else she will cease to love him. Repo-Martell’s Antigone dies not only in defiance to Creon’s refusal for her brother to be buried, but as an act of disapproval of the entire corrupt, absurd, cruel, unfair world. R.H. Thomson’s brilliant portrayal of Creon stands as a pillar of sense, of authority, as the grownup who must make the difficult decisions, and who must abide by the world’s laws and society’s norms in attempt to bring order and decorum to the people. He admits he may be wrong, yet he can see no other alternative. He is trapped in a way that Antigone is not. Who is right? Who are the villains and the heroes here?
There is a thundering ticking noise that underscores much of this production, of time ticking away, that reminded me of the crocodile from Peter Pan. Indeed, this production of Antigone was reminiscent of a tragic plea for Neverland. Creon’s page, played by Andrew Barbosa, is a ten-year-old boy, and Creon tells him at the end of the play, “Don’t grow up if you can help it.” To live in innocence can be bliss, to realize that being grown up means playing the pirate can be Hell, but the tragedy comes when the blinders of childhood are removed, and one is rendered hopeless in the knowledge that she will never return to a world of perfection, and will never survive among pirates unless she learns to compromise her lofty ideals.
If you’re looking for a night of fun, frolic at the theatre, I’m not sure this is the production I would recommend. But, if you’re looking for a production that will require intellectual analysis, and that raises questions that you had perhaps not encountered in Antigone before and that may send you home debating fiercely with your friends, this may be just the production for you to see.
Antigone runs until October 17th, 2009 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill Street, Building 49 in the Distillery). Tickets are available by calling 416.866.8666 or visiting the Soulpepper website. $20.00 tickets are also available for those between the age of 21-30 at http://www.stageplay.ca/.

Top Girls: You’re the Top! You’re Napoleon Brandy

British playwright Caryl Churchill said in an essay that she published in 1960, “playwrights don’t give answers, they ask questions.” Her play Top Girls, which was recently revived by Soulpepper Theatre, definitely provides the framework to encourage some tough- yet stimulating- questions to be debated by audience members in the lobby, and possibly all the way home.
The play was written in 1982 as a comment on the tensions between two contrasting forms of feminism- the individual and the collective- raising the question whether it is possible for a woman to be successful in her career while maintaining a healthy relationship with her family. The issues raised in the play are complex and incongruous and do not contain any one simple solution even by 2008 standards. It left this third generation feminist with simultaneous feelings of frustrated despair, cautious pride, and a gritty determination to go out into the snowy night and have faith in her future as a young woman poised to at least try to fulfill her lofty dreams.
The first scene of the play is a dinner party held to celebrate Marlene (Megan Follows), who has just received a promotion at the employment agency where she works. Her guests of honor are all prominent and controversial (and dead) historic or legendary women. The scene is obviously fictitious within the context of the otherwise realistic play, and is implied to exist within Marlene’s subconscious- either in a dream or her imagination. The marvelous women performing in Soulpepper’s production bring various degrees and interpretations of strength to this dinner party- from the forceful Pope Joan (Ann-Marie MacDonald) who will interrupt anyone, to the guff Dull Gret (Liisa Repo-Martell) who manages to command the stage although she is often the only one not speaking, and Patient Griselda (Cara Pifko), whose unwavering patience, loyalty and confidence in her decisions is simultaneously frustrating and striking. The women speak overtop of one another filling the theatre with a medley of voices and accents (especially amazing are Kelli Fox’s Scottish accent and Robyn Stevan’s Japanese accent) and opinions- drowning one another out, challenging each other and forcing the audience to sacrifice one narrative for another.
Some of my Ontarian classmates who have been privy to more of these sorts of productions than I have, strongly criticized Alisa Palmer’s direction of this scene saying that she allowed her actors too much shtick, which counteracted the strong social commentary this scene ought to have. It seems to me, however, that the heightened performances in this scene work well to establish the dream-like state and are consistent not with the way these women actually were in their lives, but how they exist in Marlene’s mind. In reality, is Marlene actually having a dinner party by herself? Is she drinking copious amounts of wine? Is this hallucination a product of her drunkenness?
I also find Churchill’s choice of women to be particularly interesting. Isabella Bird, Pope Joan, Patient Griselda, Dull Gret and Lady Nijo are not stereotypical figures in history, in feminist teachings, or in popular culture. I found myself compelled to Google each of them when I returned home from the theatre. This speaks wonders of Marlene, that her education and breadth of knowledge expended so far that these would be the women she would invite to dinner (as opposed to, say, Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc).
In the Second Act we are introduced to two young girls, Marlene’s niece, Angie, (Liisa Repo-Martell) and her friend Kit (Cara Pifko) who dramatize poignantly how important it is for girls to have strong mothers, which connects with the admission of all the “top girls” at the dinner party that none of them had strong connections with their children. This scene is truly magnificent. Repo-Martell is brilliant as the deeply frustrated Angie interweaving disturbing images of hatred and violence, with innocent vulnerability and a strong desire to be liked and naïve admiration for her aunt. It is obvious that Angie has potential, but that she needs special encouragement and guidance in order to realize it. It is also clear that she will receive neither. Cara Pifko is superb as the younger Kit, a clever girl who looks up to Angie with exuberance simply because Angie is older than her, but who cannot understand why Angie is so disturbed. I give special shout out to Pifko for the way she runs up the stairs on all fours as she exits one of the scenes, as it is a beautiful homage to childhood that may too-soon slip an adult’s mind.
The formidable final scene between Marlene and her sister Joyce is the most gripping moment in the entire play and proves without question why Megan Follows and Kelli Fox are such giants of the Canadian Theatre. Fox creates a nuanced portrayal of Joyce, who on paper can seem even colder and more heartless than Marlene, who has been saddled with all domestic responsibilities and whose stress, despair and economic hardships has eroded any admirable ideals she may have once possessed. This leaves the audience to surmise that Angie is “not gonna make it” because neither of the women in her life have the energy it will take to help her, and thus she will most likely follow in Joyce’s dreary footsteps.
Similarly, Follows gives a glimpse of heart to the ruthless and selfish Marlene, a woman who has sacrificed her family for her career and yet finds herself craving familial relationships once she’s established herself as an independent woman. I will watch any show that Megan Follows performs in because she always brings such integrity and strong intelligence to every part she plays. The struggle between Joyce and Marlene in Top Girls epitomizes the entire play as two strong, talented and intelligent women portray two equally strong, complex, frustrating women who raise issues that audiences can sympathize with and tactics that audiences can find deplorable. It is a rivalry between sisters that dramatizes a rivalry between women of different classes, races, cultures, religions and opinions on feminism. How can we stand together and demand better for ourselves when each woman and her circumstances are so vastly different?
Caryl Churchill raises the questions. It is our responsibility to strive to live the answers.