Saturday, 5 November 2016

Detroit is definitely USA's central nervous system
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 : Lisa D'Amour's Detroit was written in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 sub-prime mortgage cataclysm that brought about the worst recession since 1959. Widespread job losses, foreclosures on mortgages, 1.41 million personal bankruptcy declarations in 2009. One needs to look at these miseries through a prism of what life was romanticized to have been like in suburban America in the post-war 50's boom. 

A middle class 30-something couple live in an unnamed suburban enclave -- it could be outside of Motor City but it might equally be some other suburb by some other rusting-out big city in Anywhere, USA. Detroit as metaphor for decay & entropy. Residents struggle to keep up appearances but there are gloomy clouds overhead. Ben (Joel Wirkkunen) has lost his job as a bank loan officer, though wife Mary (Jennifer Copping) clings to her paralegal job in the city despite a daily vodka haze and her Internet surfing habits. 

Hubby insists he is hell-bent to self-educate. He wants to mount an internet site offering subscriptions to his financial planning services. Particularly designed, he says, to appeal to debt-burdened fellow suburbanites. The very premise sounds sketchy. Mary nags him mercilessly about his slow progress.

Next door in a house largely gone south, new renters have just moved in, Sharon (Luisa Jojic) and Kenny (Aaron Craven). They are recovering addicts who met some months back in rehab. They are trying to go straight : she works in a call centre and he is a warehouse labourer. It's as if they're squatters. They have no furniture other than their mattress and a dog-shredded stuffed chair. Until Mary gifts them a Sally Ann coffee table as ugly as it is cheap.

How it's all put together : What is more an American tradition than the backyard BBQ? When Ben and Mary realize there actually is a couple living next door -- furniture or no -- they invite them over for steaks on the barby. Soon it will become a series of such backyard parties as the couples get to know one another better. And the plot and characterizations will morph from a mild-&-brief Flintstones start-up to full-on The Simpsons in a nanosecond. 

D'Amour employs incisive mordant wit, particularly in Sharon's character. Her manner is both bleak and humorously discerning. The brave new world of the American 21st century ushered in by George Bush looks to D'Amour to be more an unraveling than an unfolding. Still, there are yuks galore that underscore all the economic jittery and fears. No question the vaunted American dream appears mostly smoke-&-mirrors. Upward mobility followed by a comfy retirement is pure Norman Rockwell -- the late illustrator's sentimentality is ripe for D'Amour's sniggery.

What the show brings to the stage : The truth of D'Amour's script lies here. These are not us over-fortunate Boomers who went hippie and if we managed to dodge the VietNam bullet then quickly sold out to suits, short hair, jobs and mortgages. These are Millennials. A lot of fatalistic nods at living for the moment. Less "mindfulness" in all this, however, than endless escapist vapours both legal and not.

It is said that luck is what happens when opportunity and preparation meet up. And trite as such fatherly advice might be, there is truth there, too. What roles do fate and chance play in the great 1st World scheme of things? In the play's only truly serious soliloquy, Sharon confesses to Mary about her core demon, her addictive soul, and how drugs have killed off her entitlement mentality. The next high is what counts. That is her patron saint.

"Every day really is a new day," Sharon wants to believe, "but Mary, I open my eyes every morning and all I want is a pipe to smoke. It's like there's a fire burning in the centre of my head and the pipe is the water that will put it out. I'm supposed to set goals and take night classes that will expand my horizons. And I guess that works. But to be honest I feel like the real opportunities are the ones that fall into your lap. Like winning the lottery or someone's rich uncle needing a personal assistant. That almost happened to me once. And everything would have been different."  

Lisa D'Amour has a visceral grasp of absurdity, of magnified social disaffection, of hapless characters who in becoming cartoon caricatures of themselves are, ironically, somehow more "real" in the process. 

Acting pin-spots :  Lisa Jojic as Sharon is a scene-stealer from moment one thanks to D'Amour's depiction of her as a breathless, antic and desperate junkie trying to play clean. And she has the manic buzzy dialogue to go with it filled with non-sequiturs and malapropisms and trippy leaps of logic and diction. 

Research reveals the Ben character is often given nebbish treatment. Not so by Joel Wirkkunen. His gut-level fear about life after his bank severance runs out is palpable. The acidic spats he has with Mary that she reports to Sharon reveal an unkempt untidy and unsettled soul writ large here.

Mary is the classic reasonably-high-functioning alcoholic by day, an unholy wretch of a drunk by night. Well executed by Jennifer Copping.

As Kenny, Aaron Craven's best moments are near the end when he tries to convince Ben they should go to a strip club and have a lap-dance or two. The girls are away, ostensibly camping a mere 12 miles out of town. When the women return all a-giggle after serial misadventures, the drooly strip-club venture is obviously off. To follow this detumescent moment for the lads, D'Amour creates a final scene with the two couples that is 100% surreal and bizarre. 

A wee beef with the playwright : At the end D'Amour felt compelled, for some reason, to interject a narrator character -- even named him Frank so we'd "get" his purpose. Tells the tale of this suburb, its genesis, its neighbourly purpose, its central clubhouse (almost assuredly modelled after the North Rosedale neighbourhood of Detroit), its community focus, the feel-good vibes and self-satisfied good fortune folks living there then felt they had. And probably did. But. Any semi-intelligent audience would have been quite capable to infer all that Frank was being so frank about. Quite possibly this was a dramatic faux pas by D'Amour that helped her lose the Pulitzer Prize to Bruce Norris's superior Clybourne Park in 2010. Still, wee quibble this.

Who gonna like : Edgy, timely, gritty stuff is always the grist for the mitchandmurray theatre grill. And the Studio 16 stage on 7th Avenue is plenty small enough to bring all the energy of the playwright's insights and the characters' dialogue right into the audience's face. The production was postponed from its summer date due to a complete absence of arts funding "from the usual suspects", though no reasons were stated. So crowdfunding coughed up the money to allow the show to go on. 

Mamet fans. Albee fans. Ionesco fans. You are the target audience of this script and this tight-&-timely production. 

The words of the playwright Lisa D'Amour herself should tell you whether this is your kind of show or not :

"There's a sense of an ecstatic self that wants to burst out of you that doesn't make a lot of sense. That's hard to put into words. But that you have to sort of suppress in order to get through the day by the rules of polite, civilized society. How do you grapple with these two sides of yourself -- the civilized self and the self that has all sorts of inner cravings and yearnings, whether those be sexual or a desire to be wild? That idea is [always] coming out in my plays."

Whether HRC becomes USA President or not, it is the epoch of Drumpf and Daesh. They have lots in common. Take no prisoners. The "rules of polite society" are, alas, a quickly forgotten romantic notion from days gone by. Dog eat dog. Kill or be killed. Survival of the fittest. The characters of Detroit play out this pathos compellingly.

Particulars :  Playwright Lisa D'Amour. Produced by Mitch and Murray Productions in association with Anne Marie Deluise. On thru November 19th at the Studio 16 on West 7th at Fir. Run-time 100 minutes with no intermission. Phone 604.872.0075. 

Production team :  Director Lois Anderson.  Co-Producer Anne Marie Deluise.  Publicist\PR Kate Isaac. Stage Manager Jennifer Wilson.  Set Designer David Roberts.  Lighting Designer Conor Moore.  Sound Design Dylan McNulty.  Communications / Production Assistant Kate Isaac. Front of House  Michael Coen Chase.  Photography Shimon Karmel.  Graphic Design Mari Chijiwa.

Performers :  Jennifer Copping (Mary).  Aaron Craven (Kenny).  Luisa Jojic (Sharon).  John R. Taylor (Frank).  Joel Wirkkunen (Ben). 

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