by Lynn on March 12, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

By Rose Cullis. Directed by Kelly Thornton. Designed by Denyse Karn. Lighting by Kimberly Purtell. Sound by Joelysa Pankanea. Starring: Maev Beaty, Ingrid Rae Doucet, Barbara Gordon, Martin Happer, Maria Vacratsis.

Produced by Nightwood Theatre. At the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs until March 24.

I read Rose Cullis’s script of The Happy Woman last year and enjoyed it very much. I liked her sense of story; her quirky; troubled characters and her relationships that in one case makes the hairs on your neck stand up.

Margaret is The Happy Woman in question. She sees only the bright side of things and knows it. Occasionally she wonders if that’s a good thing or not. She is happy that her son Christian and daughter-in-law Stasia are having their first child. She is happy with her daughter Cassie and is not concerned that Cassie is sexually obsessed. She is happy that her Christian and Cassie love each other so well and is not concerned that they love each other too well.

BellaDonna is the neighbour who sits on her porch all day long and watches what goes on in the neighbourhood. She sees all and knows everything. Cassie confides in her about her obsession with the married man across the street; about her performance art, even though BellaDonna wonders why it has to be done almost in the nude.

While BellaDonna has opinions and keeps them to herself, that knowing look on her face speaks volumes.

I looked forward to seeing the play up and running on a stage. I wanted to see how this all worked out as a production. Alas I think the play reads better than it plays. I can appreciate that director Kelly Thornton and her designer Denyse Karn picture Margaret’s happy world as one dimensional. To that end the backdrop is composed of simple cut out walls; a table and chairs for Margaret’s kitchen and a raised platform and chair for DonnaBella’s world on the porch. Flat white, curly clouds are suspended above the set, and everything is painted in a primary colour with little shading or blush. When Margaret addresses us with her inner thoughts she stands centre stage and delivers. No variation—no sitting at a table or on a chair nonchalantly talking to us. This is a deliberate presentation of an unremarkable but happy life.

Unfortunately—good performances notwithstanding– the production is dull. I don’t think it follows that because we might feel Margaret is dull, albeit happy, the production should be dull too. Information is revealed but it feels plodding. Scene changes fell like they take the air out of the room. While characters have angst and convey a sense of unease, that does not mean it translates into drama on the stage.

As the Happy Woman, Barbara Gordon is smiling, sunny, well turned out and always optimistic with her life and that of others. As her sex-hungry daughter Cassie, Maev Beaty is as wild, forward and full of abandon, as her mother is self-contained and demure. Beaty has that breathy enthusiasm of those searching energetically for approval, satisfaction and adventure. As Christian, Martin Happer is lanky, sweet, impatient with his clinging, anxious wife and also impatient and concerned with his too loving sister. He is as complicit as Cassie is, but he just wants to forget about that part of his life, and just dwell on his marriage. He is consumed with guilt about it. As BellaDonna, Maria Vacratsis is that watchful person, giving us commentary and context like a Greek Chorus. And as Christian’s unstable wife Stasia, Ingrid Rae Doucet is fine. Her eyes dart from place to place, fearful and certain that her child will be born a monster. Her voice is strained. I watch her face when she realizes her baby is fine and healthy. It’s full of complexity—relief the baby looks normal, but convinced it isn’t.

With that reaction director Kelly Thornton certainly has added an ending that is not quite happy and that’s a terrific thing. It’s that jab when you least expect it, that makes you sit up.

So while I say that the cast is fine the production of it as a play falls flat. Perhaps The Happy Woman would be best as a short story?

>The Happy Woman plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs, until March 24.

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