by Lynn on November 4, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer


At the Artscape Sandbox, 301 Adelaide St. W, Toronto, Ont.

Created/directed by Rosanna Saracino
Choreographed by Linda Garneau
Lighting by Bryan Steele
Costumes by Rosanna Sarcino and Katrina Carrier
Original score by Luke Latourneau
Cast: Jill Agopsowicz
Tyler Burton
Jeff Douglas
Michael Dufays
Thomas Duplessie
Arrielle Edwards
Phoebe Hu
Casey Hudecki
Christopher Kelk
Sydney LaForme
Luke Latourneau
Hayley Matheson,
Corry Ng
Denise Norman
Luke Opdahl
Jensen Porter
Jillian Rees-Brown
Sofia Rodriguez
Heath Salazar
Amaka Umeh

A well-intentioned exercise that is best left in the rehearsal room to be re-thought, refocused and re-imagined because it’s not ready yet for ‘prime-time.’

The Story. Willard Asylum was a mental institution in upstate New York, from 1910 to 1960. It was shut down and destined for other purposes so an administrator was requested to go through the building to clear it out. She unlocked the attic door; found a section of the attic that was plastered off, behind which were 400 suitcases containing the belonging of previous patients at the mental facility. From the program: “What they (the suitcases) may reveal was our point of inspiration. They led us to question: If we had to pack our suitcase, what would it contain? What might yours?”

Suitcases is comprised of about 20 stories that express why the patients are there. One man is there for alcoholism which has affected someone else in his family. A woman was committed because she was in love with another woman. A soldier has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and hears voices that bedevil him. A man dresses up properly in formal dress seemingly over his pyjamas. He wears a formal hat. Another is there for depression. We get a sense of the serious and frivolous reasons a person might have been institutionalized from 1910 on. You could be committed for hyper-activity; for too much enthusiasm; for moodiness; for not being a dutiful wife as well as for diagnosed mental issues. Some patients had been there their whole lives. Obviously none of the 400 people were cured enough to go home.

The Production. Director/creator Rosanna Saracino has her cast enter in full-length slips; sweat pants of sorts, what look like long-johns and institutional garb, except for one in green satin pyjamas. They walk in a line upstage, each carrying a suitcase. Some cases are old and battered over time; some are newish. The patients clump together stage left. A young man takes their flash picture from various angles around the group. He then explains about the suitcases being found. Unfortunately the whole speech of the photographer is done off from the group and the actor playing the photographer is not illuminated. Not properly lighting characters is a recurring situation in the production.

The group then fans out over the space, kneels on the floor then puts his or her suitcase on the floor then clicks it open in front of them, just as they say that being there is like being locked up. That spontaneous clicking sound sounds like a jail door crashing closed. Lovely image, that.

The group is moved/choreographed (Linda Garneau) around the space in various patterns, perhaps to show madness. Unfortunately too often this action is at the expense of a character telling his her story. Too often the speaker is upstage explaining the thinking etc. or why they are there and in front of that person is the group of patients moving and distracting from the scene. More focus is needed here and perhaps placing the speaker downstage without the fussy business of the group to pull focus.

At another time a young man stands in front of the group and talks about the alcoholism of his father? Grandfather? who was in the institution and how it now affected him. The character looks with disdain to his right and then I see the focus of his anger—the patient who formally dressed up. The problem here is that there is too much distance between the two characters to properly focus the scene and establish this animosity or even the relationship between them.

Occasionally characters put things into the suitcase—a woman put a pair of tiny baby shoes into hers. More clarity of what that meant would be helpful. In one scene a woman of a certain age, completely alone on stage, pulls her rolled suitcase behind her; puts it on the floor and unzips it to take out a long gown from bygone years. She presses it to her and dances with it while singing an old standard. Perhaps she is remembering better days when she might have been the belle of the ball or a classy entertainer from years ago. She then carefully folds the dress into the suitcase and slowly exits pulling the suitcase behind her. This is the only scene in which one character is on stage alone. I couldn’t figure out why.

While the program states that the suitcases and what was in them were the inspiration for the show, I couldn’t help but notice that rarely do characters go into their suitcases for something that would lead to their particular story. When one does research the suitcases on the museum site noting them, the contents are fascinating and do offer all manner of possible stories but too few of them are realized here.

Too often the stories are esoteric musings, or poetic thoughts but nothing that lead naturally to the story. The cast is huge (20 people) for this show. Director/creator Saracino has every actor have his/her own story. The problem is that we heare the story once and perhaps see that character once and never again, except perhaps in the case of the soldier with PTSD. There is no character building and after time there is a sameness to the whole preceding. A smaller cast with fewer stories with some of them being developed might have solved this problem.

Comment. I can appreciate that this is a labour of love for what should be a fascinating production. I can appreciate that this is a make-work project for the many recent graduates of the Randolph Academy (Rosanna Saracino teaches there), with a few ‘Equity’ actors, giving all an opportunity to act. But Suitcases needs to be honed more, tightened; the stories cut considerably or re-thought and the main theme—wondering what was in those suitcases–should be the thrust that leads to the creation of the stories.

Opened: Nov. 1, 2016.
Closes: Nov. 6, 2016.
Cast: 20; 8 men? 12 women
Running Time: 90 minutes.

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