Friday, 19 April 2013

A game trip down memory lane on Granville Island

My Turquoise Years [MTY] is Marion Farrant's stage adaptation of her 2004 memoir of the same name. It recounts what life was like for her living in Cordova Bay outside Sidney, BC with her aunt and uncle -- her surrogate parents -- because her Australian mother Nancy ditched her dad and her when Marion was five to seek romance and live the fast life on cruise ships, which she did to a fault. 

It's 1960, Marion [Bridget Esler] is 13 and beginning to bud. The play acts out the memories she has of that time taken from the diary Farrant kept religiously. Dramatic tension is occasioned by two influences : Marion's warm but edgy relationship with her demanding Aunt Elsie, certainly, but even more by the omnipresent spook Nancy. Now eight years later with no contact but some tardy and tasteless birthday gifts, Nancy wires that she is coming to BC to visit Marion et al in a week. Angst levels inflate and magnify.

Chief protagonist of MTY is Elsie [Wendy Noel] who is a classic blue collar mom of the times : utterly direct, pushy, to the point, full of "bloody" this and "bloody" that, frumpy in her housedress, no thought not worth verbalizing. Noel aces Elsie's persona. She carries the play almost single-handedly from her diaphragm. Elsie proves how you don't choose family; family are what you get. And how good what you get is just fate.

Quickly we're introduced as well to Elsie's sister Maudie [Dawn Petten], her son Kenny [Michael Rinaldi] who's a layabout; Elsie's newly-married elder daughter Doreen [Georgina Beaty]; Dad Billy [David Marr] whose job keeps him in Vancouver but he faithfully ferries over to visit Marion every other week-end; Marion's uncle and week-day dad Ernie [Peter Anderson]; and, importantly, Marion's "bosom buddy" Jenny, also played by Beaty. Marion and Jenny's best-friend beach scenes are wonderful snapshots of kids greeting with secret hand-slaps, doing gobs of tell-all, imagining aloud what sex is all about and plotting a whack of goofy schemes and plots. 

Director Rachel Ditor's blocking and staging of the numerous women-kibitzing-with-women pieces, particularly, were terrific. Family secrets, bits of gossip, grievances about their hubbies (current, former, alive, dead), menopause onset, raising kids, fears for the future, jibes at perpetrators of ill-will, recipes and Rx's to deal with infidelities and affairs -- as stage pieces these bits work juicily. Brava! to all.

MTY highlights the roles men and women played at that time when "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" and the women meekly submitted. Not to forget Ozzie & Harriet. Betty Frieden's breakthrough challenge to all this stylized role-playing -- The Feminine Mystique -- was still three years away from hitting book stores.

MTY's intimate scenes of interplay among Marion's adoptive family are like a Stuart Maclean Vinyl Cafe sketch except more earthy. The idioms of the day -- "Cross my heart and hope to die"; "Krikey!"; "She'll brain me"; "She wears, you know, 'falsies'!"; "Jeez, for real ?"; "Wild horses couldn't make me..."; "Go all the way?"; "Old people 'doing it' -- how icky can you get?"; "You smell to high heaven" -- these are all note-perfect from 1960, for sure. Via such great lines Act 1 ends abruptly with everyone's continued mad-dash responses over the spook's soon-to-come arrival.

Farrant gives readers a hint of foreshadowing about Act 2 in the playwright's program notes. And sure enough, the wacky-yakky but intimate dialogue of Act 1 stops abruptly. Farrant explains why: "...I have added 'flesh' in the name of theatricality to make the memoir work better onstage." 

The second act's "theatricality" comes in two forms: a switch to slapstick schticks, and the interjection of a couple of song-&-dance routines. It starts with an over-made-up hairdresser replete with pillowed derriere Rae-Ella (Dawn Patten), whose every syllable is highlighted with wildly overstated gestures and melodramatic voice crescendos and wide-eyed double-takes. Not one scintilla of realism here, either intended or in fact.

Then come the men -- Billy, Ernie and Kenny -- doing an ersatz Elvis number with accompanying soft-shoe. Next we find Ernie and Elsie making nice and making time with choreographed slap-butt antics in the kitchen.

While the audience seemed to enjoy the second act shenanigans -- particularly the ballad "If you really want to love me treat me nice" -- all this artificial "theatricality" I felt detracted from the central catharsis Marion was working through. (My companions last evening did not 100% agree with me on that.)

Playing Marion, Bridget Esler [a senior at Little Flower Academy] has a difficult task: how to dramatize pages of a diary. Her delivery often sounded more like a reading than true acting, particularly in her many explanatory monologues. Better were the scenes of her listening to her elders or eavesdropping on them all the while madly scribbling notes in her diary -- these scenes were well thought out and delivered. The ingenue writer as camera and sponge. And not to forget the beachside duet she and dad Billy did (naturally, not "theatrically") at the end of Act 1 -- "Don't Fence Me In"-- as a bedtime lullaby. Truly poignant. Esler has sweet sweet pipes. 

As Ernie, Anderson played the part of "victim" husband convincingly. Dawn Petten as Elsie's sister Maudie not so much because of flawed blocking: her quick-step giddy-ups to accommodate son Kenny's every want and demand seemed over-contrived. Michael Rinaldi as Kenny came across strangely disengaged and aloof even for a layabout.

Costume designer Christine Reimer deserves a Jessie nomination for the spot-on garb the characters sported: Elsie's housedresses; Ernie's highwater pants and plastic pencil pocket; Kenny's Elvis get-up; Marion's shorts and turquois-y swim suits.

Alison Green's set was clever but a bit over-cluttered in concept and execution. Kudos for the screen-door'd 1950's kitchen and nearby living room with its black-&-white rabbit-ears t.v. -- they worked extremely well. Also the large 3-D crashing wave behind all this symbolically links birth-mom in Oz with real-Mom in Cordova Bay -- a cool touch -- as were the downstage beach logs that brought everyone up close and personal. 

MTY offers up much creativity, energy and insight into the foibles and mores and stereotypes of the times. Somewhat uneven as a script and in delivery, it nevertheless rewards viewers with some heart-touching moments of what life seemed to be like 50 years back.

P.S. Did Nancy ever arrive? Not as announced. Later. Of course. As with the earlier birthday presents, "tardy and tasteless". Arrives with new husband Stan on a cruise ship. Marion follows Nancy to her stateroom to chat, but because she had been in the ship's bar into the wee hours singing and carousing, in short order she slides onto her bunk and falls asleep mid-sentence. Marion tells all this in a touching soliloquy at the end of the play. It is clear Marion has learned the lesson earlier noted that Elsie has tried to teach her : you don't choose family; family are what you get. And how good what you get is just fate.


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