Review: The Wakowski Bros. A Canadian Vaudeville

by Lynn on March 24, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

The Wakowski Bros. A Canadian Vaudeville

At the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts, Barrie, Ont. Book, music and lyrics by Wesley J. Colford. Directed by Richard Ouzounian. Designed by Joe Pagnan. Lighting by Travis Hatt. Musical direction by Craig Fair. Choreography by Amanda Nagy. Starring: Eddie Glen, Jennifer Lyon and Carson Nattrass.

Produced by Talk is Free Theatre. Plays until March 29.

It’s always heartening when a young person wants to go into the theatre and carry on its traditions. This is doubly heartening in the case of Wesley J. Colford, who at barely 20 (in 2010), wanted to chronicle the once vibrant but unheralded vaudeville scene in his native Cape Breton. I love how he puts it in his program note: …”once vibrant in the otherwise culturally deficient void of industrial Cape Breton.”

It was the demolition of an old vaudeville house in Cape Breton that pricked Colford’s imagination. He also said in that note, “Something about the decline of vaudeville spoke to me as I observed the current state of live theatre in this country.” I’m not quite sure what that means, and I’m certainly hoping he isn’t equating the decline of vaudeville with a similar direction of theatre in this country. Some comments one must excuse because of a person’s youth.

It was that pricked interest, and his devotion to groaning puns that has resulted in his play The Wakowski Bros. A Canadian Vaudeville. The play was first done in 2011 at the Cape Breton Stage Company; then at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2012; and now at the Mady Centre under the auspices of Talk is Free Theatre.

We are in an old vaudeville house in Cape Breton. It’s scheduled for demolition. Jim Wakowski has been summoned to the theatre by his estranged brother, Conrad. The brothers haven’t spoken in eight years. Conrad wants he and his brother to do one more show in the old theatre, and perhaps to clear the air about what drove them apart. Old history is rehashed. The brothers eked out a living first doing street theatre and then moving into vaudeville where they became successful. Jim met Caitlin Rose, fell in love and married her. She also joined the act.

Besides their history wounds are picked at. Trouble begins when Jim tries to tell Caitlin how to do the material. Jim begins to drink. It affects the relationships. Jim is jealous of his brother, thinking he is having an affair with Caitlin. Conrad and Caitlin are not cheating on Jim. One of their managers or booking agents, a slippery fella in any case, offers to invest their money in the stock market. The result is that they lose all their money in the crash of 1929.  The act breaks up as does the marriage and there is a rift of eight years in which the brothers don’t speak. So Jim doesn’t know about Conrad’s health challenges during that time either.

As the brothers rehash what has gone before, they also do their act one last time. Make-up is slapped on; prat falls are executed; songs are sung and reprised, and some of the worst groaner jokes are laid down like a barrage.

Much as one wants to think the story is original and fresh, anyone with even a cursory acquaintance with Stephen Sondheim’s Follies for example, knows there are too many echoes of it in The Wakowski Bros. A Canadian Vaudeville. (old theatre about to be demolished; former stars summoned for one last show; old rifts revisited etc.).

I can appreciate a good groaner joke-pun, truly, and Colford has certainly laden his play with them. He has also unwittingly shown why vaudeville died. The stuff isn’t funny. And in his play, it’s deadly. Also, Colford has not differentiated his dialogue sufficiently to distinguish the actual brothers as fully formed characters, from their rat-a-tat-joke spewing one-dimensional characters in the vaudeville skits. It’s hard to cheer for anyone who does not seem to be actually made of flesh and blood. The smiling ending to the play is confusing, sentimental and unearned. Colford also thinks this show could benefit from songs. Ambitious thought he is, to write the music, lyrics and book, it just has to be better than this to elevate the quality. Perhaps he wants to create a vaudeville musical. My question is why?

I saw The Wakowski Bros. A Canadian Vaudeville when it was one of the Toronto Fringe shows to be brought back for another short run as Best of the Fringe. This does not imply quality I found out. It means that it had a good attendance rate—hence the remount in 2012. I thought it was dire then for all the reasons above.

One would have thought that with this production for Talk is Free Theatre these problems would have been addressed. Sadly they aren’t. One would have thought that the direction of Richard Ouzounian would have been better than pedestrian, considering his being exposed to the work of excellent directors in his day job as reviewer. Sadly it isn’t.

In the theatre, and that includes vaudeville, timing is everything. If you tell a joke but leave no pause after it for the audience to get it, then that silence you hear is a joke thudding to the ground. Time and again characters would deliver a joke/pun and charge on to the next one, and there would be no ’rim-shot’ no look to the audience to cue them, no ‘ta-dum-dum’, that lets them know there’s a joke there. Deadly. A good director would know that.

Ouzounian does have a flashy bit of business in which both brothers play three characters—themselves and their slippery manager. The whole set up is a conversation between the two brothers sitting on two stools, as they also play the manager who wants to invest their money. It’s a fast bit of dialogue with eye-whizzing movement as both brothers rotate across the distance between two stools, giving the dialogue of one character, rotating to the other stool and ‘landing’ as the manager, then the other brother doing the same: giving the dialogue as himself, twirling to the other stool and landing as the manager, complete with different voices.

It’s a long way to go to be clever at the expense of clarity of the scene. And frankly all that activity is unnecessary. A line or two of straight dialogue would have sufficed in conveying the same thing, albeit with not as much empty flash. The first thing one is aware of is how quick and complicated it all is. Frequently I heard an audience member say: “how do those actors remember all those moves?” The point of the dialogue seems to be an afterthought to the more important showing off a bit of business.

Also it’s mystifying how anyone could sit in a rehearsal and later previews of this play and listen to Craig Fair bashing at his amplified piano off stage, and not be aware that it’s so loud that the room reverberates and it drowns out the words. Somehow Ouzounian misses that too.

Eddie Glen as Jim would seem a natural at all that scattershot joking, considering he’s done that work for several years as part of the Ross Petty family pantos. Surprisingly he’s the weakest of the three actors in the cast. He never waits for the laugh to land and just ploughs through to the next unfunny line—true that is probably the director’s blunder. But he also doesn’t seem to know how to vary his performance when Jim is actually playing himself with his brother and Caitlin. There is no one human there, no credible indication of hurt or anger, just a line spurting automaton who still gives lines as if it’s a vaudeville performance.

As Conrad, Carson Nattrass is accomplished at physical humour; front flip tumbles are done effortlessly. He does give the sense of a human being when not doing the vaudeville act. There is concern, humility, and care for his brother and platonically, for Caitlin.

As Caitlin Rose, Jennifer Lyon is a breath of fresh air. She has a natural gift for elevating these jokes and how to tell them, and every line is infused with the sense that a real person has said them. She is sassy, flirty, independent and charming.

Wesley J. Colford is young and this review might seem harsh. That’s tough. There is no room for mediocrity in an art form and this play/production is not up to snuff.  But Mr. Colford wants to write for the theatre and that at least seems hopeful.  I hope he continues. My advice is to write. Tear up. Write more. Tear up. As Beckett says, “Fail. Try again. Fail better. Try again”. I look forward to Mr. Colford’s next play.


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