The ups and downs of playRites

THEATRE-playRites-review-Games-2014-03-19T19-22-23-219722

Premières explore new ground and reveal festival’s strengths and weaknesses

For 28 years and 115 plays, the Enbridge playRites Festival has served as an essential breeding ground for new Canadian theatre. Its commitment to fostering brand-new work has given it a distinctive place within Alberta Theatre Projects’ season — the playRites plays are typically ambitious but rough around the edges, works-in-progress elevated by the polish and resources of one of the province’s most established theatre organizations.

Although it has the distinction of being the last instalment of the festival (ATP’s commitment to new works will come in the form of a series rather than a festival in future years), 2014’s playRites productions are otherwise no different. Sometimes compelling and sometimes baffling, the three plays that debuted before our press deadline end playRites’ nearly 30-year run with a perfect encapsulation of the festival’s strengths and weaknesses. (A review of the fourth play, Same Same But Different , will be posted online.)

YOU WILL REMEMBER ME

Written by Francois Archambault, translated by Bobby Theodore

Directed by Vanessa Porteous

Easily the best of this year’s playRites plays so far, You Will Remember Me is anchored by Duval Lang’s (immense) performance as Edouard, a public intellectual and former university professor whose memory is under assault by Alzheimer’s. Edouard is still sharp — he’s articulate, opinionated and genuinely charming — but while he can remember the names of all of his former students, he’s at a loss about what he did only minutes before.

While Edouard initially downplays the seriousness of his memory loss, his condition has clearly taken a greater toll on his family than on himself. As the play begins, his wife Madeleine (Maureen Thomas), having reached the end of her patience, is leaving Edouard with their daughter Isabelle (Kate Newby) and her partner Patrick (Geoff Pounsett) . Their exchanges are initially played for laughs — albeit exasperated ones — as each conversation loops back on itself when Edouard forgets what he learned only moments earlier. Eventually, though, Edouard’s condition serves as a means for playwright Francois Archambault to thoughtfully and convincingly explore such diverse topics as family bonds, memory and technological shifts.

Translating Archambault’s Tu te souviendras de moi for an English audience can’t have been an easy task, but thankfully playwright Bobby Theodore embraced that challenge head on. It’s unavoidable that references to the 1980 referendum and quiet revolution will carry a different emotional resonance in Calgary than Archambault originally intended, but the richness of the language and the depth of the emotion both survive the translation intact.

LEGEND HAS IT

Created by Rebecca Northan, with Renee Amber, Bruce Horak, Mark Meer, Jamie Northan and Sean Bowie

Directed by Rebecca Northan

Though ATP itself is avoiding the word “improv” in favour of the loftier phrase “spontaneous theatre,” Legend Has It is very much the product of a group of experienced improvisors. The premise remains the same from performance to performance, with an audience member chosen to act as the “hero from beyond the fourth wall,” recruited to rescue a fantasy world from the reign of a dark lord. Nearly everything else is up for grabs, though, as the hero’s decisions shape the story, leading to potentially vastly different adventures in each performance.

Director Rebecca Northan and her merry band are clearly up to the task, giving a variety of fantasy tropes a gentle but clearly affectionate ribbing. The audience was more than game, too, and more than a handful in the crowd came dressed in their own fantasy gear, seemingly eager to be a part of the act. The risk — and there’s no point in improvising if there isn’t a risk — comes from the expectations placed on the audience volunteer who’s chosen as the hero. On opening night, there were times where the volunteer seemed unclear on exactly what was required of her, and despite her best efforts, it led to several scenes where the pacing felt off. Still, give it a few more nights and the cast will undoubtedly find new ways to support those brave enough to get onstage. After all, one of the best things about improv is its potential to evolve throughout its run.

GAMES: WHO WANTS TO PLAY?

Written by Linda Griffiths

Directed by Amiel Gladstone

It’s hard to know where to start with this work, ostensibly an investigation of male adolescence and video game culture by playwright Linda Griffiths. Though there are a few moments where it comes together, the bulk of the play is impossible to get a read on. Is it an alarmist tract about video game violence, a Reefer Madness for the console set? Is it a condemnation of suburban alienation, tracking how modern life has reduced even adults to perpetually stunted adolescents? A heavy-handed depiction of undiagnosed mental illness? One sub-plot even seems to involve an artificial intelligence gaining sentience, although oddly, no one seems to find that alarming.

Describing the plot is almost beside the point, since Games is essentially about relationships — between parents Marion and Dan (Kate Newby and Geoff Pounsett) ; between their son Zach (Daniel Maslany) and his new friend Micky (Richard Lee Hsi); between Micky and Zach’s parents; and with a sexy piece of spyware named Keira (Katey Hoffman). Marion and Dan worry that they’re losing their son to video games. They also worry about their sex drive, and about aging in general. Zach alternates between attempts to reach out and increasingly irrational teen angst. They all talk to each other and at each other, moving from unnaturally stylized prose to down-to-earth conversations without ever settling on a consistent tone.

The cast universally deserves credit for trying to sell this material — Hsi in particular seems the most at ease with even the most ungainly dialogue — but even being generous, Games is a mess. An ambitious mess, in keeping with playRites mandate to explore new ground, but a mess nonetheless.

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