Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Flick is life illuminated by slow rheostat
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  A live stage play about three movie theatre staff in a fading 60's single-screen movie house watching movies. Also watching one another. Run-time three hours with intermission. That's what Annie Baker's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick brings to Granville Island this month.

Instantly the show conjures up American composer John Cage who introduced symphony audiences to what Simon and Garfunkel would showcase in their melancholic, iconic ballad The Sound of Silence. Fully 90 seconds elapse between Baker's first sentence of dialogue and the second. 

Dramatic arc? Not much of one, really. Just three people who 175 years back Thoreau would have seen as folks infected with "unconscious despair". That despite, now, their never-ending circus of internet games and amusements. We watch them doing their mundane theatre jobs at the slightly lackadaisical pace probably predictable for their work. And we watch how these three, thrown together quite by chance, get to know one another closely, intimately, distantly, awkwardly.  

How it's put together :  This isn't your Silvercity kind of theatre. This is Worcester, Massachusett's last picture show, its version of Vancouver's the Ridge. Spliced & patched 35mm triacetate film is on its way out. Digital Dolby is in. Three underpaid workers are tasked with sweeping up every screening's myriad popcorn kernels, swabbing the decks to  slosh over endless sticky sweet soda spills -- touch it up, for better or for worse, for the next wee clutch of ticket buyers who are among the few not streaming into the mall cineplex.

Sam (Haig Sutherland), 35, is a kindly, amiable sort who slogs resignedly through this no exit job that stares blankly back at him. Somewhat younger, snappier Rose (Shannon Chan-Kent) has been given the job of projectionist, her promotion a fact that grinds at Sam. Summer furlough from college finds black Avery (Jesse Reid) joining them in his first-ever job. Avery's a complete movie nerd who rattles off celluloid trivia with flickering speed and focus, linking through the 6-degrees-of-separation method actors who never appeared together on film such as McCauley Culkin and Michael Caine.

Wiki terms the style of the show a "comedy of the mundane". No snappy dialogue with smart Edward Albee repartee flung about. Rather through casual thrust and parry, some jibes flipped about, a typical workplace where self-revelation comes about in fits and starts, casually, incrementally, obliquely. Some love interests equally oblique and altogether circular, too.

What the show brings to the stage :  As Brit dramatist Harold Pinter perfected half-a-century back, a play's pauses and silences and hiccups reveal as much as the words we hand-pick to fill those spaces. And sometimes the words pile on top of one another with no effort to speak sequentially -- a clever mix of styles by playwright Baker.

The audience in The Flick is placed as if it's the movie screen looking out into the theatre at the trio of staff doing their same-old, same old. As they clean up and kibbitz, random comments are flashed back-&-forth about film lore. Along the way revelations about their fears and hopes and dreams and sweaty urges lurch forth in syncopated rhythms. We get to know them at about the same speed as they get to know each other.

It is utterly obvious in USA that McJobs at $10 and less an hour are too often all that debt-ridden college grads can look forward to. In such a milieux the hackneyed expressions "existential angst" and anomie -- social alienation -- spike to new heights each passing year. Young Avery, son of a linguistics / semiotics prof at Clark University has free tuition there. But he also has a therapist who he's in instant touch with via his android device even when the therapist is on vacation. The need to molt the skin of WTF that millenials often project is constant. Many believe they were born that way and are condemned to little better thanks to a rigged system stacked against them in today's culture. Life's core relationship to them seems less ironic than sardonic. 

Production hi-lites and pin-spots :  Clearly, to this eye, Shannon Chan-Kent as Rose grabs the limelight (pun intended with her green hair). Her attempted seduction scene with Avery was 100% a believable antic schtick that starts with a madcap solo dance-&-shimmy routine to Jay Z's "I Just Wanna Love You" hip-hop rap. Her cheeky nonchalance most of the rest of the time was perfect. Closing my eyes I heard Samantha Bee in syllable after syllable. Opening them, I saw her.

As Sam, Haig Sutherland gained terrific momentum across the night, his Act 2 nuances as a trapped man free in spirit was a thrill to watch. In Act 1 he betrayed a depth of tragic shallowness that at times plunked him but one sad step behind Edvard Munch's terror-struck silent Screamer. By the end of Act 2 his persona became a kind of winking, knowing Squire Barnes character -- a touching, telling performance.

As Avery, Jesse Reid was much of the time a bit wooden and stiff, but Baker's script puts him squarely in the cohort of people with some form of autism spectrum disorder. When he recites the smiting sequence from Ezekial 25:17, meanwhile -- aiming a mock 2-finger Glock 9mm directly at Sam's head -- his delivery was superb.

Laughlin Johnston's 60's movie house interior was choice, just like I remember Tsawwassen's last single-screen local movie house level'd in 2000 (final show The Perfect Storm) to make way for a supermarket. Alan Brodie's lighting and Murray Price's sound design -- from Jay Z to techno-pop to David Foster & Narada-stylings -- were great contributors to the event. 

Who gonna like : The Flick is theatre quite unlike normal Vancouver fare. This is "naturalistic" dialogue and drama as opposed to the customary representational stuff. It's a bit like these characters being mic'd up rather than their reciting nothing but pre-scripted lines. These are people being people being people in the slow, spontaneous reactive ways we all interact. Some call this "hyper-naturalism" or maybe it's just "magnified realism". 

The age range of the opening night crowd was from some vaguely mystified teens to a swack of millennials laughing uproariously behind me to no end of white hairs and baldies with canes in their 80's. All cheered and clapped vigorously at show's end.

Just two wee grievances from me : a constant complaint of mine re: profanity on Vancouver stages. The swear words are so often wrongly emphasized. Surely Director Dean Paul Gibson has a finer-tuned ear to street patois than evident on stage. E.g. when Sam challenges Rose he says : "Why did you show Avery how to use the projector? What the fuck is wrong with you!" Then when Rose offers to train him too, he retorts angrily and jealously: "There's no fucking way!" Should have been "What the fuck is wrong with you!" -and- "There's no fucking way!" Troubles on this count by everyone. They all own this wearying trend.

Second kind of "Really!?" response was to playwright Baker's closing denouement that betrayed a bit of reverse racism that didn't work. What should have been Sam and Avery in a casual "No hard feelings, huh...?" shrug of parting became a huffy and pedantic diatribe on race and class completely at odds with the rest of the scene taking place. But mere quibbles, these, for sure.

In all this is inventive engaging theatre refreshingly not main stream or predictable. Watch and hear dialogue just happen. Let the pauses and silences speak loudly to you. This is first-rate entertainment writ large. 

Particulars : Produced by Arts Club Theatre Company (53rd season, 583rd performance).  At the Granville Island Theatre.  To October 29th.  Run-time 3 hours including intermission.  Tickets and show times via Arts Club or by phoning 604.687.1644.  Production team : By Annie Baker.  Director Dean Paul Gibson.  Set Designer Laughlin Johnston.  Costume Designer Stephanie Kong.  Lighting Designer Alan Brodie.  Sound Designer Murray Price.  Assistant to the Director Wendy Bollard.  Stage Manager Caryn Fehr.  Assistant Stage Manager Angela Bieulieu.  Performers : Shannon Chan-Kent (Rose).  Jesse Reid (Avery).  Aaron Paul Stewart (Dreaming patron / Skylar).  Haig Sutherland (Sam).  


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