Thursday 8 October 2015

Poignance & theatrics galore in The Waiting Room

From the footlights :  Chutzpah! and courage are kissing cousins in the dictionary. No wonder. How else to explain playwright Morris Panych doing up a script about Spirit of the West frontman John Mann's fulsome fight with colorectal cancer that caught him in 2009. Panych's script "The Waiting Room" is a collaboration built around Mann's 2014 solo bluegrass & folk & r-and-b album of the same name. The show and the songs are about fate, fear & family, health horrors & triumphs. It's a fete that features many of the moody flippant zingers Panych is so famous for. Unlikely theatrics you say? Fear not : the songs, the band, the choreography, the lights and the set are an absolute treat even though cancer clearly is anything but.

How it's all put together : Jonathon Young is J., the John Mann clone in the piece who gives life to Panych's dialogue. (As for the songs, Mann does his own vocals with a back-up band from behind a backlit scrim of floor-to-ceiling gauze.) As the lights come up, J. rhymes off the show's leitmotif about waiting : "Waiting to be famous / waiting to be gracious / waiting for inspiration / waiting for the perfect chord to end a song / but when you're waiting for bad news, nothing else exists", he cries, a la Leonard Cohen and/or Robert Penn Warren*. This he spiels to a patient from the kids' ward, C., who had leukemia (Matreya Scarrwener). She's a sprightly wise 10-year-old spirit sent to guide J "over" should that be how this chapter of his life ends. Together they commiserate about "all the endless possibilities, the waiting, the dread". 

Soon the stage is populated with four other actors who among them perform 10 hospital-related roles : admissions clerk; doctor; nurse; technicians; bed-mates &c, also J's wife L (Jillian Fargey). 
Spouses who've been through such events as these will recognize the symptoms. Shouts J, "I feel so diminished, so insubstantial!" to which L replies, almost coyly : "I like it when you're vulnerable, it makes me feel strong."

From initial diagnosis through the endless test phases, the pre-op prep and its drugs, the surgery, until ultimately his final "clean" designation after more than a year, ten songs by Mann relate the tale, the endless waiting "just to say it's gone". And even now J. doesn't realize it, truly, until his wife reminds him "a nightmare is still a dream" and touchingly re-works the traditional marriage vow of "for better or for worse" : "The people who love us suffer with us, and believe it or not it's part of the joy of loving!" To which the credo of the show at its end adds tellingly : "There's no reason for any of it, and we shouldn't wait for one." Carpe diem! indeed.

Production values quite astonishing !  When I asked my 20-something daughter K. what she liked best, she didn't hesitate : "The chairs, all the chairs, especially when the play opened." Oh my. Quite agree. A more imaginative staging (Ken MacDonald) I think I may never have seen on the boards in Vancouver. Twenty-two chairs on the floor lined up as in a typical BC hospital waiting room with all its classic floor markings and arrows : each of the chairs white, of mixed vintage and variety and decidedly Sally Ann-y, clearly gifts from the Hospital Auxiliary. But above the floor arrangement, strung from wires, another 50-odd white chairs that descend from the fly gallery. At first they're all aligned and neat, one group forming the sign of the cross, but throughout the show they drop down higgledypiggledy -- all askew and awry and akimbo, a farrago & jumble wholly analogous to how hospitals seem to operate -- and how cancer does, too. Simply brilliant in conception, design and execution. Bravo!

Meanwhile it didn't take daughter K. long to add : "But I also really liked the music, so bluegrassy, not like musicals at all." Credit Allan Rodger as musical director for that, along with John Mann's creative juices flowing underneath of course. But without Ace Martens as sound designer, the work of both Mann and Rodger would be sotte voce. Striking projection, volume and balance throughout. Like in a night club, I was told, not quite as boom-y as EDM but not far off either. Terrific chops from all the band, no question, not one underplayed note from any of them.

"And then there was the lighting," K threw in, "it was so neat!" Veteran Gerald King gets the kudos for that piece, his use of follow-spots and fades done to a T.

For Papa, meanwhile, Movement Collaborator Wendy Gorling's choreography of Panych's staging directions grabbed me as wholly original and slick. A sort of Keystone Cops series of chase sequences with lots of Charlie Chaplin pirouettes thrown in. The company was ever playing tag with Ken MacDonald's dancing bedside privacy screens and operating gurneys and, of course, the omnipresent (omniscient?) chairs that oversee all the krankenhaus mayhem underfoot. To co-ordinate seemingly spontaneous syncopation and make it rhythmic takes some doing. Huzzah! is all I can offer toward such skilled work as this.

Antic acting abounds : As J., Jonathon Young turns in yet another exuberant and excitable and effervescent performance that Vancouver has come to expect from him. And Matreya Scarrwener as C., well she quite took my breath away two years ago in her debut for ACT as a 12-year-old girl scout in Armstrong's War. I'm thrilled to report I'm breathless once more. More subtle finesses two years on, to wonderful effect. For her part, delightful spouse nuances by Jillian Fargey and lots of chuckle & dash from the rest of the cast. 

Who gonna like : As noted supra, cancer is obviously no laughing matter. But when the story of one man's passage through such an experience is given the lifeblood of John Mann's musical muscle and a narrative by Morris Panych, those virtues coupled with the show's utterly creative staging make this an early candidate for Front-runner! in the Fall Vancouver theatre sweepstakes. Maybe not exactly for teen-age Glee! fans, but a sure bet for anyone whose life fortunes have taken them to health care waiting rooms as patient or family or friend. This is definitely Go! time. Touching, compelling, convincing, entertaining : you can't ask for more.

Particulars :  Book Morris Panych. Music and Lyrics John Mann. Performances at the Granville Island Theatre through October 31st. Run-time 85 minutes, no intermission. Schedules vary daily. Ticket information via or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Artistic Team :  Director Morris Panych.  Set and Costume Designer Ken MacDonald.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Sound Designer Ace Martens.  Movement Collaborator Wendy Gorling.   Stage Manager Caryn Fehr.  Assistant Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Dramaturge Rachel Ditor.

Performers : Jonathon Young (J.)  Jillian Fargey (L.)  Matreya Scarrwener (C.)  Bonnie Panych (Nurse A, Doctor F, Nurse C, Mrs. C)  Chris Cochrane (X-Ray Technician, Nurse F, Prasad, Orderly)  Peter Anderson (Doctor D, Neil).

Band ensemble : Voice John Mann  Banjo Brad Gillard  Guitar Eric Reed  Keyboards Allan Rodger  Violin & Harmonies Shari Ulrich.

*Addendum : If Messrs. Mann & Panych never read the following poem, it would be a wonder as the themes they parse are so similar.


by Robert Penn Warren

You will have to wait. Until it. Until
The last owl hoot has quavered to a
Vibrant silence and you realize there is no breathing
Beside you, and dark curdles toward dawn.
Drouth breaks, too late to save the corn,
But not too late for flood, and the dog-fox, stranded
On a sudden islet, barks in hysteria in the alder-brake.
Until the doctor enters the waiting room, and
His expression betrays all, and you wish
He'd take his goddamn hand off your shoulder.
The woman you have lived with all the years
Says, without rancor, that life is the way life is, and she
Had never loved you, had believed the lie only for the sake of the children.
Until you become uncertain of French irregular verbs
And by a strange coincidence begin to take
Catholic instruction from Monsignor O'Malley, who chews a hangnail.
You realize, truly, that our
Savior died for us all,
And as tears gather in your eyes, you burst out laughing,
For the joke is certainly on Him, considering
What we are.
You pick the last alibi off, like a scab, and
Admire the inwardness, as beautiful as inflamed flesh
Or summer sunrise.
Until you
Remember, surprisingly, that common men have done good deeds.
Until it
Grows on you that, at least, God
Has allowed us the the grandeur of certain utterances.


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