Saturday 12 March 2016

The List rhymes off our frailties poignantly

From the footlights : "I didn't lay a finger on her. / I didn't hire anyone / To sneak in and murder her. And yet it's as if / I killed her."

As if. Those two short words pack considerable wallop in life. But to "as if" oneself to surrogate murderer is some step indeed. Still, the concept of guilt is powerful. Probably for us all.

The premise of The List is rather simple. A 30-something woman, curiously un-named, is beyond neat-freak. She is obsessive-compulsive. (For convenience, I shall name the anonymous housewife "O.C.")

An escapee from the noise and lights and frantic activity of big city -- Montreal one assumes -- O.C. has compelled hubby and sons to relocate to a rural village in Quebec. A long commute back to the city for him, not fit company when he drags himself home. She grinds inside. Misery still stalks her, just differently. So she orders her life around her daily tasks. And makes lists.

She makes so many lists they are not only the centrepiece of her life, the writing & reciting & repeating of them become the actual purpose of her life, it seems, instead of the activities and tasks the lists refer to.

Fundamentally agoraphobic, O.C. ventures out seldom. She calls the village women "nosy bitches" and curses the drab field outside her window instead of welcoming each season's colours and smells. No. The tree in centre field instead seems to suck the air from her lungs, she complains, not induce seasonal joy at its changing.

Forced by her family, she reluctantly goes to the annual village picnic. There she meets plucky & free-spirited Caroline, a hippyish earthy messy artsy sticky mother of four and soon expecting #5. They befriend. Caroline asks her a favour : I'm anxious about our village Dr.  He's old, clumsy. An asshole, she says, apologizing for the cuss-word. What is your doctor's phone number back in Big City?  O.C. makes a note of it. Then omits to actually do that task over the next 7-8 months.

When Caroline dies from an embolism -- the end result of a pricked artery during her C-section -- O.C. obsesses that her failure to carry out this one simple task for Caroline makes her not just a grieving neighbour, but possibly complicit in Caroline's death. Worse. She is blameworthy. At fault. Directly responsible.

How it's all put together : A one-woman show, it's obviously a monologue. Is O.C. talking to herself? Talking to her dead friend Caroline? Talking to the audience? Talking to God? Yes.

And talking, always, through her memory of the countless lists she made hour-by-hour, day-after-day. Reminders of birthday parties to attend, pay the credit card bill, get insurance renewed -- the myriad domestic chores that tot up her day.

In the Afterword to the published script, playwright Jennifer Tremblay (no relation to Quebec favourite son Michel) writes: "The List is to my mind a long, unending question, although one that is never explicitly formulated : 'In your opinion, ladies and gentlemen, am I culpable in my neighbour's death?'"

The challenge for Tremblay in this 2008 Governor General's Literature Award play is for O.C. not to be written off as a neurotic self-pitier. Is she having a genuine dark night of the soul, a true existential crisis? Or is she simply neurasthenic, her brain & heart a stifled and sorry mess from some sort of self-designed and self-fulfilling character fault?

Mamet meets Munro : The List is a bit of a throwback piece. Translated into English by Shelley Tepperman, the script sounds at times like Alice Munro as filtered through David Mamet : gritty core women's pain and guilt spit out through rapid-fire, repetitious-ever-repetitious short bursts.

"Let me find her number, it must be here somewhere, I'll find it for you, find the doctor's number!" she assures Caroline, making a new list item.  "I can't shirk these responsibilities, I must succumb to them. But one's mood affects the lists. Still, I love to be precise with lists, be rigorous with lists. I copy lists from one to another over time. I have 'floating lists' like Paint the fence! Sew on buttons! Phone 4-1-1 for the doctor's number! I have treated this as a 'floating list' kind of task. Find the doctor's number!"

When Caroline brings her baked truffles at Christmas, she pleads : "I want that number, I want that number, please!" Indeed, Munro meets Mamet.

Fast-forward to our own iPhone universe. Compulsive txtng. Instagram. FB. Twitter. Distracted preoccupied virtual thoughts and flip throwaways. In lists. In electronic quickly-forgotten catalogues of separation from true, real, face-to-face connectivity. "I feel good at your place!" the robust and rosy and mother-earthy Caroline tells her.  Mentally O.C. adds this note to her list.

Thematic punch brought out on stage : As directed by Jack Paterson, this 55-minute show works exceedingly well. With one wee but notable exception : a rhetorically ad nauseam and extraneous digression enumerating each plot detail of a cinema melodrama O.C. and Caroline went to see. The point of all this needed but one line, not 4-5 minutes of on-&-on-&-on. But Paterson is to be congratulated that the pace of the Gateway production is some 20 minutes shorter, apparently, than other productions previously performed back east. I recommend Ms.Tremblay / Ms. Tepperman edit this section considerably to maintain the emotional flow of the script. 

Aside from that, the show impacts viscerally. The funeral description scene of the kids lying atop Mommy in the open casket kissing and hugging her and saying "'Bye, Mommy!"  had me wet with tears. 

Many of us live in our heads. In thoughts and words, not up close and personal in deeds. France Perras is quiet, forceful, embracing and compelling. Truth and love flow from her richly in the end. Her arriving to insight comes to her almost as a surprise but, ultimately, with new-found warmth as she drives home to the heart what genuine means. She executes this transformation with grace and subtlety. But most importantly, with believability.

How preoccupied we get. How life is a blitzkrieg of trivial pursuits for us, not a fleshy full-on face-to-face grab of the moment and the people in our orbit. Rather more often a lot of abstractions strung out sequentially.

Production values galore : Perras's flip-about of the white fibreglass / chrome kitchen chair and her pirouettes around it draw us into the poignance and pathos of her life's plight. "Why am I hung up on life's 'forms' rather than its 'content'?" she seems to be asking herself. 

Lighting / Set Designer John Webber presents an intriguing set of strung-down family staples : bits of Lego, a rubber boot, father's shoes, a colouring book, kitchen stuff, envelopes with opaque address windows. A deft hand on the follow-spot rheostat as well. 

Sound Designer Mishelle Cuttler mixed some wonderful children's playground joy! with moody electro-zounds at just the right timing throughout.

Who gonna like : Self-reflective people who enjoy the occasional self-jab of guilt how their lives seem spinny and zany and too reactive rather than either engaged or responsive will love this hour's reflection on all those themes. France Perras is nuanced and subtle and poised and pained as she struggles with her guilt, anger and hurt at her friend Caroline's untimely and likely preventable death. This is tender touching theatre.

Particulars : The List produced by Ruby Slippers Production in association with BoucheWHACKED! Theatre Collective. Written by Jennifer Tremblay. Translated by Shelley Tepperman. At Gateway Theatre, Studio B. Until March 19. Schedules & ticket information at or by phoning 604.270.1812.

Production crew : Director Jack Paterson.  Lighting/Set Designer John Webber.  Costume Designer Drew Facey.  Sound Designer Mishelle Cuttler.  Technical Director Mark Eugster.  Stage Manager Lois Dawson.

Performer : France Perras.


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