Broadcast text review: THE ROAD TO MECCA and BINGO

by Lynn on May 9, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

The two reviews were broadcast Friday, May 9, 2014. CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm.THE ROAD TO MECCA at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, until May 25, and BINGO at the Factory Theatre Mainspace until June 1.

Good Friday morning. It’s theatre talk time with Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. So Lynn what do you have for us this week.

Two plays that couldn’t be more different.

The first is The Road to Mecca by Athol Fugard, a celebrated South African playwright. About a woman living alone, in a tiny village in the Karoo, who makes art that disturbs the prickly people of her village.

And Bingo by Daniel MacIvor, our celebrated Canadian playwright.It’s about five friends who meet for their 30th anniversary reunion of their high school, and drink, bellow and reminisce.

Ok let’s start with The Road to Mecca, what’s it about?

It’s 1974, in a small, isolated village in the great Karoo, a semi-desert in South Africa. Miss Helen, late sixties, lives there alone. When her husband was alive she was the dutiful wife and regular church-goer. When he died years before, her life exploded open. She began creating large sculptures of owls, statues, cherubs, mythic characters which are positioned both inside and outside her house. Her house is also full of colour, glitter, candles and eclectic art she created.

But the villagers avoid her as if she is a kind of crazy lady. She’s had accidents in the house that have endangered her safety.
Marius Byleveld, the local minister and a long-time friend, feels she should be better taken care of and wants her to move into a senior’s home, which Miss Helen doesn’t want. The situation is of such concern to Miss Helen tells of her worry in one of her letters to her twenty-something friend, Elsa.

Elsa drives the 800 miles from her house to Miss Helen to find out the truth. When she arrives Elsa is exhausted and aggravated about the long ride; distressed about Miss Helen and angry about many and various things, all of which come out in the course of the play. So this is really a fight for the very heart and spirit of Miss Helen with a lot of argument in favour of art and personal freedom along the way.

I would think this is a great opportunity for a designer to go wild with the set.

Beth Kates has designed a set of Miss Helen’s house, with a section off stage left that is outside, that is full of Miss Helen’s sculpture. The various owls, animals, cherubs and other shapes seem to stand guard over her. The house is full of colour, glitter windows without curtains for the most part, candles and knick-knacks on every surface. It’s a house full of meaning and art. But not to the close-minded people in the village.

A concern: Kates has so filled that set with stuff I don’t think she actually checked to see that her whole audience can see everything. I was audience right. There is reference to some damage in the house that Miss Helen tries to dismiss. Looks like a fire happened, but if you are sitting where I was your view is blocked by a large sculpted column with a baby sculpture on it.
Not good.

How about the rest of the production?

Director David Storch has illuminated the emotional roller coaster of Miss Helen’s life with his sensitive, detailed direction. At times her relationship with Elsa is tender and loving and other times it’s combative. Elsa wants Miss Helen to be tougher in dealing with her situation and Marius. This is not Miss Helen’s way. With careful blocking Storch and his gifted cast realize the heightened emotions that carefully build until the final struggle.

Miss Helen is described as “a frail, bird-like little woman….” She is played by the diminutive Diana Leblanc who gives a towering performance. Leblanc does convey the frailty and bird-like quality of Miss Helen, but also her quiet fearlessness, her quirky elegance.

In this regard costume designer Martha Mann dresses Leblanc in layers of beiges and colours showing that Miss Helen’s art is not just applied to her sculpture but to herself as well. Initially Miss Helen has a lot to hide from Elsa so Leblanc is skittish and nervous. Watch as she tries to hide her arthritic hands under her long sleeves. Leblanc gives a compelling performance.

As Elsa, Shannon Taylor has that wearying fury of a person who rails because of misplaced anger. It’s stuff in her life that’s making her lash out at Miss Helen’s situation. Taylor has the confidence of a young woman who knows how to solve other people’s problems but is having difficulty doing the same for herself.

As Marius, David Fox brings his usual charm to a man who does care for Miss Helen and wants the best for her. It’s just that he’s a blinkered, up-tight, conservative prig. It’s obvious that when he calls Miss Helen’s art an ‘abomination’, that this guy doesn’t have a clue of how to deal with her or what she’s about.

It sounds like an emotional play and production.

The Road To Mecca is an emotional roller coaster of a play. Both Elsa and Marius are literally fighting for what’s best for Miss Helen. She in the middle, with her head down, just wishing they would leave her alone. The forthright attitude of Elsa and the gentler, but superior-acting Marius present an interesting dynamic. It’s quite gripping to watch and of course this fine production delicately gets you right into the thick of it.

Athol Fugard gets into the heart and soul of his characters and into the heart and soul of South Africa, which is always in the background. It was good to see the play again after so many years, especially when the production is so good.

And how about Bingo…I take it it’s not about the game played in Church basements?

No. It’s the 30th anniversary high school reunion of five friends. It starts out with three guys—nick-named, Nurk, Dookie, and Heffer—drinking in Dookie’s hotel room. They toss back a shot, punch each other in the stomach and wait. They are waiting for the first person to have to run off and puke. That’s their game from high school. He who pukes first, wins. When that happens they scream Bingo.

Who are these guys? Nurk is the most sensible, mature of the lot.
He works for the environment purifying water. Divorced, thoughtful and looks on the other two with a touch of sadness. Dookie, loudmouth, bully, successful real estate salesman, married, and lies to his wife often. If he lies again to her, she’s tossing him out. Heffer is downtrodden; married and unhappy about it because they have no kids and he wants them. Always trying to measure up.

The two women are Bitsy, whose secret is that she didn’t graduate and everyone knows it. And Boots who always seems to be with Bitsy so everybody thinks they are lesbians and they aren’t.

So what’s the play about really?

It’s about unhappy people trying to rekindle the glory days of high school and of course failing. What we get from this is that they all don’t like each other for the most part, except in two cases. The men certainly try to one up each other, and Nurk is the only one with maturity.

It’s directed by Nigel Shawn Williams and the whole thing has a sense of desperation—the friends are desperate to recapture what they think are the glory days. The theatre is decorated with balloons and streamers to get into the reunion spirit.

The cast of accomplished actors is valiant. Playwright Daniel MacIvor is one of our leading contemporary writers. He has written wonderful, deeply thoughtful plays with compelling dialogue.

Bingo isn’t one of them and that is so disappointing. The material is slight and thin. The dialogue in some scenes is like listening to tires spin, going no where.

He’s written a touching program note for Bingo. He wrote the play for his brother who lives in Cape Breton in a trailer park. He’s retired and spends his days in his lazy-boy chair watching old western movies and baseball games. “On Thursday nights he goes to the legion, gets drunk, comes home and falls asleep in a pizza.” MacIvor wrote the play for his brother in the hopes he will like it and tell his friends to see it and be proud his brother wrote it. Sad.

>Bingo is a slight play about sad people who do little but drink in this situation and have little regard for each other after all these years.

Bingo is a play for people who don’t go to the theatre. I don’t know any people like that. Best to go to The Road to Mecca.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s Blog at On Twitter @slotkinletter

The Road to Mecca plays at the Young Centre For the Performing Arts until May 25.

Bingo plays at the Factory Theatre Mainspace until June 1.

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