I went to The Guild to see the opening night performance of ACT’s production “Of A Certain Age”, a trio of one-act plays (2 by Tennessee Williams, 1 by David Moses), the conceit of which is that each play features a role for a woman “of a certain age”. Further conceits of the evening (we were told) are that almost the entirety of the production (directors, crew, production design elements, and 63% of the cast – I did the math) was comprised of women. With this production’s professed agenda to promote “women of theater” it seems odd to me (and a shame) that they couldn’t find suitable works by female playwrights. Maybe they didn’t look?
The Guild was packed full for this opening night performance. Like, every seat taken. Good news for the production, but the reality of this for patrons is that The Guild gets really hot. That, plus the sardinery of thighs touching thighs as we all sit, packed in the dark of the theatre, no doubt factors into one’s potential enjoyment of the production one experiences.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, and everyone involved in the production should be happy and proud of what was presented.
(I unfortunately misplaced my program so the names of a couple of the other actors from the night have escaped me.)
Tamara Steele starts the evening off in a relaxed, friendly way, by informing us of what I wrote about in the first paragraph. She then sets the scene for the first play, Williams’ Lord Byron’s Love Letter, which takes place in New Orleans. As she asks us to imagine New Orleans jazz music floating in the air, the director in me wonders “why not actually have music playing here, rather than her talking about hearing the music”, Steele perhaps answers my question by breaking into an a capella song (of the era, I presume?) which further gets us into the mood. It’s a nice-enough way to get us into each of the plays.
Lord Byron’s Love Letter, directed by Sharon MacDonald, is about an old woman and her daughter (or grand-daughter?) spinster, who try to get people to pay money to see, or hear about, a love letter reputedly written by (or for?) Lord Byron. A married couple come by and are regaled about the existence and history of the letter.
The Old Woman is played by Kate Martin. She is easily the strongest performer in the play, which is even more impressive because of the fact that she says (or yells) almost all her lines from off-stage (as if hiding behind a curtain). It’s not really explained why she needs to hide behind a curtain when people come calling, but lets just chalk it up to an eccentricity of the script and not worry any more about it.
Or maybe the comparative strength of her performance is because her character is really the only one who has anything fun to say in this script.
She has a number of funny back-and-forth moments with the spinster, whose task it is to play up the thrill and excitement surrounding the letter to any visitors. The spinster plays it a bit hammy and theatrically for my tastes (a few too many “can you believe what is happening” eye rolls), but perhaps that’s the direction given? Or the nature of the dialogue? I don’t know. But let’s not worry any more about it.
The couple that comes to learn about the letter don’t have much to do, but Tim Wartman as the drunk, indifferent husband does enough with all of his nothing to do. It’s a role that practically begs for burping, ball-scratching and scene-stealing, and kudos to Tim for being the better man and only occasionally borrowing the scene.
It’s an odd little play that had me asking a lot of questions but not caring enough to wonder about any of the answers, so let’s not worry any more about it.
Tamara Steele again pleasantly transports us through scene-setting and song, this time to St. Louis, the location of the second play of the evening, Williams’ The Pretty Trap. It’s something of a precursor to his huge success The Glass Menagerie, featuring all the same characters, but for the most part, very little of its depth.
I should disclose here that I have been in two different productions of The Glass Menagerie, once as The Gentleman Caller (my first ever role), and once as Tom the brother/son. So my viewing of this play is undoubtedly skewered somewhat by my familiarity of that play.
This play, briefly: Faded southern belle matriarch Amanda worries that her delicate, socially inept daughter Laura will never marry. She gets her indifferent son/brother Tom to bring home gentleman caller Jim for dinner, hoping to ensnare him in The Pretty Trap.
Joscellyne Bordeaux plays Amanda Wingfield, the matriarch, and she is wonderfully fun to watch. She obviously is having a blast performing this larger-than-life character, and she really nails the performance. I’ve never seen her more engaging and comfortable on stage. Funny in all the right places, hints of a tragic inner-life in other places, timing and pacing that keeps the play motoring forward. Her character is easily the centerpiece and heart of the play. A truth that proves itself when she leaves the stage, and takes most of the energy and interest with her.
The character of Tom is very much underwritten for this play and the actor who plays him (sorry, lost the program) doesn’t do a whole lot to bring much life to him. I can blame the writer here, more than the actor.
The Gentleman Caller is given a bit more to do, and has a bit more of a backstory to him, but I found this performance didn’t grab me much either.
The young actress who plays Laura plays her as a strong, defiant character – an odd choice that seems to go against the very nature of the way she seems to be written (and described by Amanda). I was expecting a shy, frail girl and instead got a somewhat loud, somewhat firmly-petulant teenager instead. Not sure if that’s an actor’s choice, or director’s choice, but regardless, it’s a choice that took me by surprise.
And yet, the biggest surprise of all was still to come.
See, there’s a part of the play where things are supposed to get quiet and intimate. It’s just Laura and Jim left alone on stage, getting to know each other, and Laura tells Jim about her glass animal collection – a menagerie of delicate little glass ornaments. Jim seems interested, and so she goes to get one, to show him. Because of my knowledge of Glass Menagerie, I am expecting her to bring out a tiny, delicate little glass unicorn that easily fits within the palm of one’s hand.
What she brings out, though, is the result of perhaps the most audacious directing choice in Prince Edward Island theatre history. And it completely ruined the play for me.
Let me try and paint the picture, though I confess and acknowledge that whatever words I use in my attempts to describe what my eyes were seeing and what my brain was trying to contemplate, I will fail to even come close to the reality of the blinding, brain-numbing absurdity of what actually transpired.
Someone made this decision: instead of having Laura carry out, cradled in her hands, that delicate little glass unicorn ornament, it was decided to make it a human-sized mockery of a unicorn, sitting in a chair, cumbersomely pulled along on a trolley.
Dressed all in white (in a paper suit?) with what looked to be melted plastic-water-bottles for hands, and a hat (crown? head?) – somehow attached to the chair instead of to the humanicorn – that is also made of warped and ugly plastic, with a glass-dildo shaped horn protruding above it all. (I wish I could verbally paint a more accurate picture of this bizarre experience)
So here we have this play moving along quite swimmingly, with a strong, standout performance by the lead, who has gone to great lengths and exertions of energy to portray and provide some subtleties of character within a rather broadly-written maternal caricature; supporting actors who admirably attempt to bring life to un
derwritten characters – and it all gets wiped out by introducing a wild and weird, fantastical piece of absurd nonsense into this decidedly unfantastic world.
I don’t know what the intention of this choice was supposed to be, but for me the result was that anything that was said and done from this point onward, for the rest of the play, became absolutely irrelevant, because this white monolith was in the room.
I was also befuddled by the choice to have a portrait of Clark Gable hanging on the wall, when it’s supposed to be a picture of Amanda’s husband, who ran off years ago. Do they (the characters) see this as Clark Gable? Does Amanda have delusions that she was once married to a movie star? Is he supposed to be the embodiment of “perfect husband”? It’s never explained.
Also, I had issues with figuring out the period in which this play was set – as in, I couldn’t figure out what year the play was set. It was written to be set in, I assume, the late 1930s? They attempted to update it though, by making references to The Beatles and Rolling Stones as records they’d play on the Victrola. So, is it now in the 1960s? Why update it to the 60s, specifically? Again, a fairly minor annoyance, but an annoyance nonetheless.
Intermission – and time to get more confused about the presence of the humanicorn.
Act Two begins with Tamara Steele again introducing the next (and final) play, The Prompter, by David Moses. I don’t remember if she sang another song, though.
Another disclosure: I’ve been friends with Dave since forever, and had seen every performance of the original production of this play. So again, a skewered perception of this production.
The Prompter, directed by Nancy McLure, is about a seasoned older actress (Barb Rhodenhizer) who comes to a rehearsal expecting to work one-on-one with the director, but ends up running lines with a prompter (Madison Peters).
It’s a terrific script, full of great lines. And it was a real pleasure to see it performed again.
The play, we are told, was written for Mae Ames, a Grand Dame of PEI theatre. I was curious to see how Barb would fit into this role that was specifically written with Mae’s personality and nuances in mind. Turns out, she did a terrific job – maybe the best I’ve ever seen her. She did seem to be emulating Ames’ line readings at times, and I was occasionally wishing they tried to massage the script to fit Barb’s personality, rather than have Barb do a mimicry of Mae, but that’s a fairly trifling thing. Maybe the script doesn’t easily allow that?
Regardless, Barb was strong, funny, touching – totally on target and shining for pretty much everything the role demanded.
Madison Peters was good as the prompter, if a bit underwhelming. It is a fairly underwritten character to play, admittedly, so there’s not a lot to find within. And there are a couple of jumps in emotion the character is required to make that the script doesn’t effectively pull off. Again, more of the script’s problem than the actor’s. She did a perfectly satisfying job when given her few moments to divulge character, and the rest of the time she was utilitarian in giving the star of the play her room to shine.
A thoroughly enjoyable evening of theatre, all around.