Friday, 30 January 2015

Goodnight Bird takes flight with Nicky & troupe

Backdrop sketch :  As WarGen and Boomer folks begin to exit the workplace in streams, their cars will commute them to their houses a final ritual time. For many, it will not be until that day that they discover what being "home" truly means. While during their careers they juggled work, kids, spouse, church, clubs, sports, vacations and mortgage -- always fitfully -- now they will discover they have one primary focus : their marriage. And as Honore de Balzac noted so insightfully : "Marriage must incessantly contend with a monster that devours everything : familiarity." 

Indeed it is precisely Balzac's acumen that is the underlying motif of The Goodnight Bird by Canadian playwright Colleen Murphy, now on through Valentine's Day at the Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver. 

A couple in their 60's, Lilly and Morgan Beaumont, have downsized into a new condominium. The stage of their life drama may have changed, but the dialogue between them wanders aimlessly forth, as it has for years. Morgan is not yet retired : he's still a corporal, if not exactly a captain, of industry. But Lilly is a retired teacher who has grown expert at being what Earl of Grantham (Downton Abbey) disparages as "the guiding hand always ready to point out to us the error of our ways." The play opens spot-on-point : Lilly (Nicola Cavendish) is tut-tutting away at hubby Morgan (Christopher Hunt) how he must wipe off toothpaste spittle from the bathroom mirror and sink before using the same towel to mop up his pee dribbles by the biffy. Remember, she scolds, sink first...! 

Still, Morgan and Lilly are not a completely tired-out sarcastic old couple whom Samuel Beckett would lament as people who've spent their lives "alone together, so much shared". Nor of the masses who "lead lives of quiet desperation" that Thoreau mused about at Walden Pond. The Beaumonts, rather, have learned to live with Balzac's monster and in fact have cozied up to the beast over their decades together in a kind of passive and anemic and fatalistic way. They chide and snide, but generally don't bully one another. 

Their life ambles and shambles until a planned suicide -- the homeless / hippie Parker (Graham Cuthbertson) -- lands on their condo lanai and bounces off their BBQ instead of smushing on the carpark below that he was aiming for. Parker oomphs himself up, bruised and bleeding from his crash landing, and stumbles incoherently into the Beaumont's new cloister. It's as if he were a messenger descended to enlighten and forewarn them about the familiar but vagrant path they tread. Parker's role couldn't help but bring to mind the old quip : "The difference between a rut and a grave is how long and how deep." But those crystals of perception come only after Parker raises a big stink or two, lit.& fig.

Plotline a witty bit of fluff : To imagine the Beaumonts welcoming Parker into their bedroom as in any way verite would defeat Murphy's intention : and that is to take a believable but unlikely scenario, shove in some silly and unsettling bits of script, and then let the audience figure out whether to laugh, cry, moan or cheer. I did all four.

Scene 1 finds the wounded bleeding Parker crashing the Beaumont's loo to take a pee and cop a bath. "Don't try anything funny!" Lilly shouts through the door. "Funny ha-ha or funny like taking a poop on the floor?" Parker rejoinds. "Oooh, boy!" is all Morgan can muster -- as he often does -- sounding for all the world like William H. Macy's stunned car salesman Jerry Lundegaard from the Coen brothers' 1996 masterpiece Fargo. 

Parker emerges from the bath that was too hot and does a naked bird-dance around the stage flouncing & flapping his five appendages around until the Beaumonts capture and swaddle him. He announces, hippie-like, "I'm a bird, I'm lost to the world". He lives in the nearby ravine, akin to Vancouver's Stanley Park, and loves to stare at the stars. He says he wants to rescue the potted trees on the condo roof that are strangling in their concrete prisons. The trees whisper to him, "Save me!" he says, channeling Kramer in Seinfeld. Parker sniggers at the irony : "I want to die and they want to live!" Lilly, who carries the script's best laugh lines, suggests : "Maybe it would be best if you go back where you came from and try to cheer up."

Scene 2 plays out the extended "afterword" once Lilly takes Parker back to the ravine. She comes back home to Morgan (who's a mere two months post-heart attack) and describes how Parker "made love" to her in the wee hours in the graveyard next door. This scene is Murphy's device for Lilly and Morgan to re-live their 40 years together and focus on what, if anything, the future might hold for them in light of the night's events. Because Lilly announces that she wants to join Parker in the ravine to chase squirrels, birdwatch, hunt for stones, grab every sunrise and marvel herself to sleep without pills by wrapping herself up in the stars at night. 

Lilly tries to shock Morgan whom she claims was at best a C- lover. "My phantasy life was rich and crowded," she tells him. "Young students used to hang around just to look up my skirt." Morgan retorts with sarcasm : "You were born at 45 and went through menopause at 11!"  

Almost impossible to not flip back to Richard Burton and Liz Taylor in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as Lilly and Morgan re-live the miscarriages, the refused adoption-option, their childless life that they play out together with only a series of cats to look after. Morgan says they sold out any idealistic values of the 60's protest movements they may once have had for wealth and safety. Lilly responds : "No one's safe until someone fixes their full attention on you -- that's the only time you're literally safe." 

And so it's only when security delivers Tippy the cat back to them, quite dead -- she jumped off the 8th floor lanai when Parker landed on it -- that each one starts, perhaps, to "fix their full attention" on their spouse. But of course they continue to natter and snipe away at one another on the way out the door -- just as Balzac predicted old marrieds would do. 

What Murphy achieves : Colleen Murphy wowed Arts Club audiences a year back with her clever and engaging Afghanistan PTSD / paraplegic piece Armstrong's War. In The Goodnight Bird she mingles whiffs of not only Edward Albee but Harold Pinter, Alan Ayckbourn, David Mamet, and Woody Allen in her bittersweet reflections. Marriages are stories of lives lived, love shared, losses, and loneliness interrupted by moments of lust in the early going, now health breakdowns, regrets, and faint hopes for the future. Put another way by Mignon McLaughlin : "If you made a list of reasons why any couple got married, and another list of the reasons for their divorce, you'd have a hell of a lot of overlapping."  

No question : the narrative and dramatic arcs of Murphy's play change somewhat too-abruptly between the two scenes once the charming, offensive, and engaging Parker exits stage left. Still, she touches nerves remarkably with the au courant themes that all of us budding retirees surely can relate to : mindfulness; focus; attitude; humility; forgiveness; empathy; psychic stretching and flexing instead of rote role-playing. 

Production values : Montreal's Roy Surette (Artistic Director, Centaur Theatre) returns to Vancouver after directing Ms. Cavendish in 4,000 Miles to kick off ACT's 2014 fall season. His selection of cast for The Goodnight Bird was superb, as was his direction of each of the principals. I am an unabashed Nicola Cavendish idolator, so I am ever-jaundiced at both her intuitive stage business (hair primping, double-takes &c.) as well as her exquisitely nuanced diction, cadence and comic timing. This piece is Nicky non-pareil. Simply brilliant. For their parts, Messrs. Hunt and Cuthbertson were choice, each one. Hunt presents an often deadpan but forceful-&-profane Morgan who exudes a person with a wealth of pathos. Cuthberson was a completely compelling kook.

Set and Costume Designer Pam Johnson deserves equally high kudos for near-perfection here. The lime green condo with its crown moldings and floor-to-ceiling windows was staged genuinely, no question. But it was the utter clutter and mish-mash of furnishings including unmatched Victorian bed table lamps as well as a farrago of art lithos in random frames thrown willy-nilly at the walls that spoke volumes about Lilly and Morgan and where they "came from" -- mostly ersatz and borrowed tastes without theme or direction. Pricelessly done!

Who gonna like : There is not one retirement or pre-retirement couple I know I would not recommend The Goodnight Bird to unhesitatingly and unreservedly. This script and its actors deliver comedy and drama and poignant reflective thoughts with wit, crispness, and moments of sheer freakish brilliance. The Kay Meek studio theatre -- albeit awkward and frustrating a venue to triangulate in the dark -- is a choice room, up close and personal and intimate, truly a delight.

Particulars : The Goodnight Bird produced jointly by TheatreK with the Centaur Theatre of Montreal , by arrangement with Talent House, Toronto.  Through February 14th at the Kay Meek Centre. Box office 604.981.6335. On-line ticket purchase via

Production crew :  Written by Colleen Murphy.  Directed by Roy Surette.  Assistant Director Sherry Bie.  Set and Costume Designer Pam Johnson.  Lighting Designer Luc Prairie.  Sound Designer Nico Rhodes.  Stage Manager Rick Rinder.  Assistant Stage Manager & Props Carol Macdonald.  Apprentice Stage Manager Aidan Hammond.  Production Manager Justin Corrie.  Production Coordinator Samara Van Nostrand.  Lighting/Sound Operator Stephanie Jew. 

Actors : Nicola Cavendish. Graham Cuthbertson.  Christopher Hunt.


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