Toronto is full of theatre companies that make up in spirit what they lack in size. They may produce only one show a year, but even then their presence is felt. Such a company is Theatresmash. They chose plays that deal with the human condition in an oddball, idiosyncratic way. Their latest effort is A BOY CALLED NEWFOUNDLAND and our own oddball, theatre critic, Lynn Slotkin is here to tell us about it.
Hi Lynn. What an intriguing title. Does the play have anything to do with Newfoundland?
Practically nothing. I love what the program says: “This is not a play about Newfoundland. This play doesn’t even take place in Newfoundland. This is a play about this kid.” And the kid in question is in fact named Newfoundland because that’s where his parents spent their honeymoon.
So tell us the story of this seemingly oddly titled play.
Playwright Graeme Gillis has written a play that has “quirky” written all over it. It takes place in “a Nintendo-blue house at the top of a Maritime hill.”
It’s about the Willow family. Husband and wife Marianne and Bill Willow run a newspaper called The Romantic Times covering all kinds of romantic stories. They are on their second honeymoon in Newfoundland but only Marianne comes home. Bill has gone off somewhere and Marianne is not telling her three children where or why.
The kids are concerned. They are Brigid the eldest daughter, Arley, the middle and 15 year old Newfoundland, the youngest, whom everybody calls Flounder. Newfoundland wants to get the family back together. The daughters go on a wild, boozy car ride in search of their father. They realize all is not what their mother told them.
What’s really going on with their father? Will Arley find happiness with her divinity student boyfriend? Will Newfoundland find happiness with his French Canadian girlfriend who he met in summer camp? Will Marianne be able to fill the holes in the front page of THE ROMANTIC TIMES?
Probing questions from this quirky play.
Is this quirky play given a quirky production?
It sure calls for one doesn’t it? A BOY CALLED NEWFOUNDLAND is not just quirky, it’s a sweet, delicate play that requires a production that is as delicate. But that’s not what director Ashlie Corcoran has created. I have great respect for young directors such as Ms Corcoran. She’s bursting with ideas, and has a keen sense of the theatrical. But it’s important to knowing how to apply those ideas and when to hold back.
And I wish she had held back a bit.
The multi-leveled set by Robin Fisher is too gaudy and overpowering. At first I thought with all the bold colours they are trying to suggest the maritime waters. But that seems odd because the waters are never referenced.
At another point a sheet is pulled from out of one level and fashioned into a clever bed. Too clever. We don’t need it. We can use our imaginations.
When Arley and Brigid take their wild car ride, they flip up a section of one level of the set revealing a sunken area. The sisters climb in suggesting the car. They mime closing the door, starting the car and careening through traffic all with appropriate movement and recorded sound effects. Too fussy. We don’t need it. Since they are miming driving we can figure it out without the clever sound.
The best direction is invisible. It should serve the play, not distract from it.
How’s the acting?
The acting is a treat, lead by Martha Burns as Marianne. She is both grounded and yet has an appropriate quirky stare. She’s trying to hang on and continue on without her husband without too much alarm for the kids.
As Newfoundland, Patrick Kwok-Choon is wiry, pulsing with energy and sweet. As Brigid, Natasha Greenblatt has that in your face directness that is refreshing here.
A BOY CALLED NEWFOUNDLAND will appeal to theatre goers who support edgy, small companies like Theatresmash, and who appreciate performances that are as loopy as this sweet play.
A BOY CALLED NEWFOUNDLAND plays at the Tarragon Extra Space until April 11.