by Lynn on October 15, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

Erin Fleck

I’m going to talk about two shows: THOSE WHO CAN’T DO…and ANOTHER AFRICA.

They don’t have a common thread but I found them provocative and they will play for another week or two, so people can decide to see them or not.

Ok, let’s go in order to keep things simple.

THOSE WHO CAN’T DO…At Theatre Passe Muraille until October 29. Written and performed by Erin Fleck. Directed by Shari Hollett.

THOSE WHO CAN’T DO… is about sex education, sex, and education and the dangerous volatile worlds they inhabit.

This one person, multi-character play shows that sex and education are two entirely different things. An inexperienced but caring teacher tries to teach 14 year old girls about sex, and gets embroiled in a scandal as a result. Some parents are up in arms.

The administration treats the subject with kid gloves and just wants the problem to go away rather than dealing with it. The sex education book the teacher has to use is 12 years old, vague and therefore inadequate. It doesn’t address any of the pressures teenaged kids go through. The teacher believes that honesty is the best way of
teaching, that and taking off the gloves and answering all their questions. Because of that she gains their trust.

Her sexual experiences were very few and far between and certainly the first time she had sex was when she was much older than these 14 year old girls. So the rest of the title is ironic—THOSE WHO CAN’T DO…teach.

What was the cause of the scandal? The scandal involved many teenaged boys on the hockey team, and a group of teenaged girls who gave them oral sex in exchange for safety pins. The pins were their badge of honour that they belonged to this secret club who did oral sex. Obviously the more pins you had, well….you can imagine.

It’s obvious the parents weren’t giving these girls any sexual guidance and so it was left to this young teacher to do it. Do these girls even think it’s sex if it’s oral sex, I wonder?

The parents were then up in arms about the teacher’s involvement—that is to say, the girls went to the teacher rather than their parents. The parents protested. The principal—a woman– gets involved, reluctantly.

A mess

We’ve all seen one person plays in which the actor/actress plays many parts to tell the story. Erin Fleck is a wonderful, sensitive writer who gets to the heart of a situation with economy and even humour.

The set is very spare. A blackboard with chalk, a desk and chair.

Each character is introduced when Fleck writes the name on the blackboard—Lillian is the teacher’s name. After the name is written or printed, Fleck changes her body language and voice, and that character speaks to the issues as if in conversation with Lillian.

When the speech is finished Fleck wipes out the name with a brush, ready for the next speaker. Principal Bray for example is a rather stern, cold woman who puts Lillian through her paces. Lillian’s mother tries to be supportive, but isn’t really.

After a while we can tell who is speaking by the voice and body stance and writing the name on the board beforehand is unnecessary.

I’m not sure if that bit of business, of writing the character’s names on the black board is Erin Fleck’s idea or her talented director, Shari Hollett, but I think it’s inspired, because it is simple, and economical in telling us who is speaking.

Sometimes the handwriting on the chalk board is elegant as you would expect of a principal’s or a teacher’s. Sometimes it’s printed suggesting the simplicity of a student.

Erin Fleck is a varied, engaging performer. You can see Lillian’s conflict in dealing with this huge issue. The character, Lillian, is unsure and insecure—the actress, Erin Fleck, never is.

She captures the buoyancy of the girls; the veiled condescension of the principal and on and on. Each character is distinct, clear and potent.

Erin Fleck’s play, THOSE WHO CAN’T DO… is brave, sobering and important. Every teacher, parent and teenager should see it.

ANOTHER AFRICA At the Bluma Appel Theatre until Oct. 22.

SHINE YOUR EYE by Binyavanga Wainaina. Directed by Ross Manson. PEGGY PICKIT SEES THE FACE OF GOD by Roland Schimmelpfennig. Directed by Liesl Tommy.

A little background about ANOTHER AFRICA. First of all it used to be a trilogy of plays under the umbrella title of THE AFRICA TRILOGY. The plays had been commissioned and performed for the 2010 Luminato Festival.

Ross Manson, the artistic director of VOLCANO Theatre, oversaw the project, organizing three international playwrights to write plays that dealt with Africa in one way or another.

And they in turn would be directed by a cross section of directors, Ross Manson was one of them.

I must confess I was disappointed in the result when I saw them at Luminato.

The premise was promising—a multi-faceted take on the relationship of Africa with the West. But at the end of the day, I thought the plays were rather vague in their subject matter and telling their story. And they were not as hard hitting as I would have expected from such a volatile, mysterious subject as Africa.

Now the Canadian Stage Company has joined with VOLCANO to remount two of the plays, under the umbrella title of ANOTHER AFRICA. There is a newly written piece that joins the two, so perhaps I would get a different perspective this time.

The two plays are: SHINE YOUR EYE, written by Binyavanga Wainaina (from Kenya) and PEGGY PICKET SEES THE FACE OF GOD by Roland Schimmelpfennig (from Germany).

SHINE YOUR EYE is about a Nigerian internet scam—we’re all familiar with them—and a thoughtful young woman named Gbene Beka, a computer programmer with the scam, who is trying to find her place in the world.

She is the daughter of an assassinated political hero. She meets a woman on line who lives in Toronto. They have a lot in common. Does Gbene Beka stay in Nigeria or does she go to the West and make a new life.

The program says that the play explores “the notion of territory, and what possible territory might exist for a new generation of Africans, now in their twenties.”

So Gbene Beka must find her own territory, says the program.

I think that idea would make a good play.

SHINE YOUR EYE isn’t it.

The idea of the Nigerian scam just diminishes any seriousness of the intention. The Nigerian internet scam is the subject of jokes. So trying to say it’s about territory doesn’t fly.

I can appreciate those speeches of Gbene Beka as she talks on Skype to her Toronto friend, you can see her confliction about what to do, but in the end, the playwright Binyavanga Wainaina doesn’t prove the case.

And the structure of the play doesn’t help to solidify the argument.

They seems like so many monologues to the audience and not often enough between characters. That makes the whole tone static.

Ross Manson directs the production. There is all sorts of technology—computers, videos etc.— giving it a modern feel, but ultimately it’s a cold production of a cold play.

That said, I am mighty impressed with the passion and commitment of actress Dienye Waboso as Gbene Beke.

PEGGY PICKIT SEES THE FACE OF GOD fares marginally better mainly because of the stellar cast.

Roland Schimmelpfenning’s play “explores similar themes around the past, the present and how choices made for what seem like compelling reasons can have inescapable consequences.”

Well yeah….most choices do have inescapable consequences.

The premise: two couples reunite for a meal and drinks after not seeing each other for 6 years. One couple—medical professionals– went to Africa to do crisis work and became involved with a little girl there that they all tried to help.

They are Carol and Martin. Carol and Martin came home from Africa after being away for six years exhausted and disillusioned. There are hints that they aren’t well—they have lost weight, that business of being tired etc.

The little girl seems to have disappeared and their information is vague about what happened.

The other couple—also medical professionals—stayed in Canada, made money, had a child and lead the good life. This couple is Frank and Liz.

The couples indicate they are envious of the other.

And in the course of the evening when truths are told we learn that Martin slept with a nurse—I assume in Africa—and that nurse slept around—gave Martin a disease which he then gave Carol. We assume it’s AIDS even though both Martin and Carol refuse to get tested to see what the problem is.

The story of PEGGY PICKIT SEES THE FACE OF GOD certainly is more substantial than SHINE YOUR EYE.There is the suggestion that Carol and Martin are devastated at what they saw in Africa.

The futility of it all.

The relationships between the couples is an interesting, prickly dynamic.

But again, I found the play to be cold and distancing.

Schimmelpfennig repeats scenes and dialogue for some reason. I couldn’t figure that out, except that it gives the play a feeling of being artificial. He has the cast give asides to the audience. Perhaps that was the intention? I still don’t get it.

Director Liesl Tommy of both South Africa and the US plays on that sense of artificiality. She has her cast take odd stances.

For me the cast is the saving grace.

As Carol, Maev Beaty is all grace but hiding a pent up rage—for her husband that he cheated on her, and gave her this disease and the friends who have a good life.

As Martin, Tom Barnett is like a guilty, walking wound. He is consumed with despair though he tries to be jolly.

As Liz, Kristen Thomson carries off that awkwardness beautifully at not seeing friends for so long. And she has that tight smile of a person who knows the evening is a disaster and is just trying to get through it unscathed.

And as Frank, Tony Nappo has that easy swagger of a man in control, who is successful and has no time for people who aren’t in control and are not successful.

I loved the cast.

The plays are a different story.

THOSE WHO CAN’T DO…plays at Theatre Passe Muraille until Oct. 29.

ANOTHER AFRICA plays at the Bluma Appel Theatre until Oct. 22.

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