The Globe and Mail's review:
Making room for new ideas
By KATE TAYLOR
Monday, July 15, 2002 – Print Edition, Page R3
At the Studio Theatre
in Stratford, Ont.
There were pretty speeches, strings of thank-yous, gifts and applause, and then Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, Stratford Festival artistic director Richard Monette and executive director Antoni Cimolino unveiled the cornerstone, and the company's new Studio Theatre was officially opened.
It may seem like a lot of fuss for a 250-seat black box carved out of the scenic shops at the back of the Avon Theatre, but the Studio Theatre is as important as it is small. This is where the Stratford Festival will attempt, once again, to make room for living playwrights within the largest repertory theatre on the continent.
And the double bill of plays by two young writers that launched this new space after Saturday afternoon's opening ceremonies was particularly auspicious.
Actor and Stratford company member Paul Dunn offered a small, imaginative and tidily crafted domestic drama called High-Gravel-Blind. Anton Piatigorsky, an American living in Toronto, where he has already established a reputation for oddball scripts with experimental narratives and spiritual themes, contributed an unfinished but ambitious postmodern look at modernist literature. It was a meaty matinee.
Dunn got his idea -- and his title -- playing Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice last season and mulling over the scene in which this clown pretends to be a stranger to the blind father who cannot recognize him. What kind of sadistic son would thus misrepresent himself to his own father?
In an apartment in Montreal, former street kids Jessica (Kimwun Perehinec) and Lance (Damien Atkins) are just getting their lives together when Gord (Stephen Ouimette), the violent, drunken father Lance hasn't seen in 15 years arrives at the door with born-again wife Margery (Chick Reid).
Lance, who has just cut off his dreadlocks and reinvented himself for a new job, panics and pretends that Lance killed himself last winter -- he is only Bob, Lance's old roommate. There follows an hour of comic encounter between these Christians from Calgary and the two Montreal bohemians -- and of dramatic tension, as Gord tries to find out what happened to Lance and "Bob" tries to find out whether Gord feels any remorse.
Monette directs with a firm hand that milks the comedy but also reveals the play's intelligence.
The cast is strong. Atkins produces a touching mixture of embarrassment and pain as Lance. Reid gets most of the laughs with her officious and small-minded Margery.
The greatest asset here is Ouimette as Gord, as he subtly reveals the simmering abuser behind the subdued church-goer and the drunk behind the recovering alcoholic. That is the most interesting thing about this refreshing play: its complete lack of sentiment about the recovery movements that Dunn portrays as masks rather than transformations.
Eternal Hydra had a larger and more abstract genesis. It grew out of Piatigorsky's undergraduate interest in James Joyce and his current concern with the relationship between art and commerce. One of its central themes is the appropriation of voice, which is hardly theatrical material. This a piece driven by ideas rather than characters and only belatedly reveals its particular intelligence after a rocky start.
The action begins in the office of New York publisher Randall Wellington (Paul Soles), where English scholar and editor Vivian Ezra (played by Reid) is trying to sell him a book. She has discovered the long-lost manuscript for Eternal Hydra, a novel told in 99 different voices by a 1930s Irish writer named Gordias Carbunkle. Dramatically, their meeting is enlivened by Carbunkle himself -- that's Ouimette again -- appearing as a ghost only Vivian can see.
Under pressure from new corporate owners to find books Oprah will like, Wellington isn't sure he wants to buy, but he does introduce Vivian to Pauline Newberry (Karen Robinson). She's a successful novelist about to publish a book in which Carbunkle features as a fictional character discussing race with a black writer of the day named Selma Thomas, and as the writer reads from it, Robinson begins now to play Selma to Ouimette's Gordias.
As directed by Andrey Tarasiuk, Stratford's director of new-play development, this is a very artificial encounter full of improbable business dealings and self-conscious unravelling of themes. Things improve markedly when Piatigorsky takes us back to Paris in the 1930s and the actors now play parallel versions of the same characters.
He shows us the "real" Carbunkle, a self-loathing Irish Jew who won't give credit to his female researcher (that's Reid again) and is not above buying Selma's material from her. If Robinson and Reid are still struggling here to breathe life into figures who are dramatic conveniences rather than people, Ouimette finally has something resembling a real character into whom he can sink his teeth.
Carbunkle's final speech reveals a provocative take on the key-to-all-mythologies novel and the hubris behind it. Turns out the pale and artificial charmer of the first half was merely the Carbunkle that the possessive Vivian wants to believe in, but this script needs a great deal of rewriting before it is going to be able to make those subtle points about authorship and ownership in a dramatic setting.
The double bill of High-Gravel-Blind and Eternal Hydra runs at the Studio Theatre until Aug. 10. For information: 1-800-567-1600 or http://www.stratfordfestival.ca