At Artscape Sandbox, 301 Adelaide St. W., Toronto, Ont.
Written by Greg MacArthur
Directed by Jennifer Tarver
Set and costumes by Andjelija Djuric
Lighting by Rebecca Picherack
Sound by Lyon Smith
Cast: Cole J. Alvis
David Patrick Flemming
A play about memory, Montreal, friendship and truth, maybe, that is so intensely personal it seems almost as if it’s for a select few. It’s directed and acted with style and confidence.
The Story. The city in question is Montreal. Playwright Greg MacArthur had many of his plays produced in Toronto, where he used to live. But several years ago MacArthur moved to Montreal where he found himself in the middle of a vibrant theatre scene. He stayed for five years contributing plays to that scene. Over time he found his ideal world was crumbling so he decided to write a play about true events, authenticity and some of his cherished friends.
He had extended conversations with the members of the vibrant, edgy theatre group, Side Mart Theatrical Grocery, with the intention of wanting to capture what he found so intriguing about them. A City is in part about four of them: Graham, Andrew, Gemma and Paddy.
While MacArthur strives for authenticity, he uses a fabricated event to frame the play. The group revered a friend of theirs, a visual artist name Shia Labeouf—not his real name but I thought it hilarious the artist is named after a man more famous for his breakdowns and run ins with the law than his acting–anyway, Shia Labeouf comes to a Halloween party hosted by the four friends, dressed and painted all in gold as King Tut. He wanders off from the party and is found dead the next morning, in the park. If one is covered from head to toe in gold paint that’ll kill him.
The four friends then recount their memories of Shia among others, their meeting each other, vague references to their shows, a camping trip, drinking and getting drunk, living in that city, bonding, and even scientific proof of the existence of the soul.
The Production. Andjelija Djuric has designed a set in which the playing area is inside and around a square that is illuminated by four florescent bulbs elevated a bit off the floor. There is an opening in one section as if it’s a door well.
It’s directed with heightened style and a keen sense of detail by Jennifer Tarver. Amy Keating as Gemma is our narrator of sorts—funny, perceptive, focused. She addresses the audience looking us straight in the eye—it’s a small room and the lighting is such that one can see faces clearly– She assures us that everything we will hear is true. Occasionally she is challenged by a character named Graham who whips out a microphone from the inside of his jacket. The microphone is used on several occasions, heightening the theatricality of the production, but I had to wonder why the microphone is used at all. It’s not as if any character is inaudible. Unless it’s just a theatrical conceipt.
Tarver and Susanna Hood, the movement coach, have created extensive choreographed movement—the cast of four go to the corners of the illuminated square crossing in mid-square; crossing back, always in each others lives but not in their way. They ponder and watch each other. And they listen.
What is beautifully realized in the jump-cutting dialogue between the four and Tarver’s close attention to the pace of it, is that these four people are close friends; they anticipate what the other will say; they finish their sentences; they challenge without rancour or edge, except for the prickly Graham played by a playful David Patrick Flemming. They all have their own quirky charm and they all work as a cohesive whole. No one grandstands but all have their moments. Andrew is the dashing jet setter it seems—played with boyish charm by Justin Goodhand. Paddy is quixotic—played by Cole J. Alvis with a fascinating hair cut. More than anything that friendship is the centre of the play—our focus.
Comment. Greg MacArthur writes in such a personal way it almost seems that A City is for the select few who were there and would recognize the references and not necessarily the audience at large. MacArthur adores Montreal but except for a few street name references his adoration does not come out of the writing. We certainly get the wit and brains of those four friends but not a larger sense of who they are in that theatrical community. They reference their shows. Surely we should have a larger sense of these people in terms of their theatrical lives and not just the world of their easy friendship? Is their larger world of theatre the thing that adds to that friendship?
Also, I know the work of Side Mart Theatrical Grocery. They are a terrific theatre company. I’ve seen Graham Cuthbertson (Graham) Andrew Shaver, (Andrew) Gemma James Smith (Gemma) and Paddy Costello (Paddy) in various shows. Dazzling work. But A City seems like it works best if you know all this already and that seems a cheat, if not insider information needed to make this work deeper. Without context of who these people are one might wonder, why am I in the room listening to their quick discourse?
The friendships seem solid but then they part quickly—again, with little reason or something to hold on to. A City is an odd piece. Terrific cast and production though.
Necessary Angel Presents:
Opened: March 16, 2017.
Closes: April 2, 2017.
Cast: 4; 3 men, 1 woman.
Running Time: 65 minutes.