by Lynn on May 6, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Factory Theatre Mainspace. Written and co-directed by Adam Pettle. Co-directed by Jordan Pettle. Designed by Jackie Chau. Lighting by Andrea Lundy. Sound by Christopher Stanton. Starring: Joe Cobden, Patricia Fagan, William Macdonald, Harry Nelken, Shannon Perreault, Geoffrey Poundsett, Lisa Rider.

Benjamin has a problem. He’s a compulsive gambler and owes a lot of money for a bad bet. He needs a miracle to save him and goes to the synagogue to pray for divine intervention.

Benjamin’s girlfriend Ruth has a problem. She’s got cancer and has pooled her life-savings to seek alternative treatment in Mexico. Ruth has trusted Benjamin to get the plane tickets. But he has taken her savings to place one last bet at the track based on a hot tip from Eli, who Benjamin just met at the synagogue.

Ruth’s sisters have their own issues and it’s not necessarily worry over Ruth’s fragile health. Beth is a top curler who is fretting about an upcoming championship game she feels she must win. This puts strain on her relationship with her husband, Sean. Sister Lily, who never met a cult or crackpot religion she didn’t like, is pregnant and has a vague idea who the father is.

Bear, a friend of Benjamin’s, is addicted to gambling, drugs and alcohol. He has been clean for about 35 days and the strain is showing.

Playwright Adam Pettle has had huge success with Zadie’s Shoes since it was first produced by Factory Theatre a decade ago. He’s written other plays: Tharac 25, Sunday Father, each dealing with serious subjects but with their own humour. Pettle has spent much of the last several years honing his writing skills in television and radio. However Pettle is not one to rest on his laurels. He has taken his sharpened writing abilities and given Zadie’s Shoes a fresh look. He’s revised it reflecting the present day, tightening dialogue and scenes, and cutting where the story isn’t served.

Over the last decade I too have honed my critical and observation skills, and much as I enjoyed Zadie’s Shoes the first time, with reservations, I think this new version comes up short. Pettle is very adept and quick with a quip and a zinging one-liner. But when almost every character has the same ability with the jokes, then my eyebrows start to knit. Truth to tell, I don’t know anyone who talks like that outside of a television situation comedy.

Precious little time seems to have been spent on deepening character development.
At every turn Benjamin ignores Ruth’s situation to attend to his compulsion to gamble. And in spite of him lamenting at the end of the play that he really, truly loves her, Pettle has not given us any evidence that that is really, truly true. At the end of the play Ruth gives Benjamin a clear sign that she is open to him proving himself to her, but he seems to be either too absorbed in his self-pity or too stupid to see it. How are we supposed to have compassion for this guy when there is so little reason for it?

Similarly Ruth’s sisters travel to Mexico to be with her, but again Pettle doesn’t give us any hint in their characters’ make-up that would substantiate such a move.

Both Adam Pettle and his brother Jordan have directed <strong>Zadie’s Shoes. They have suffused the play with the sounds of gambling–a twirling roulette wheel and ball; the clatter of a horse race at the track—to create Benjamin’s gambling world. And they beautifully establish the anxiety of Benjamin yelling at a horse to come in, in a tight race and similarly Beth urging her team to sweep hard to ensure the rock lands properly.

However designer Jackie Chau’s set is so odd and sprawling that scene changes are clunky and take too long, slowing the pace.

Even in the direction scoring the joke is more important than developing a character or scene. For example, after Beth’s game Sean unexpended shows up to give her support. She is sitting on a platform but he has to carefully slide along the ice to get to it. Seeing how Geoffrey Poundsett as Sean maneuvers his way along is quite funny. But I shouldn’t be thinking: “Why is that platform there on the ice at all?” “Where exactly are they?”

As Benjamin, Joe Cobden is that combination of lost boy and compulsive man that is intriguing. And he is quite moving in his acting when he indicates regret, even though there is little evidence in the text. As Ruth, Patricia Fagan brings a sensitive thoughtfulness to the part of a woman with serious health issues, and infinite patience when dealing with her disappointing boyfriend and needy sisters. In an ironic way it’s refreshing to see such strong performance of such an adult character.

Adam Pettle is not afraid to tackle difficult subjects. I just wish that next time he would dig deeper into character development and storytelling and not be so compelled to succumb to the glib one-liner.

Zadie’s Shoes plays at the Factory Theatre until June 5, 2011.

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