Saturday 21 October 2017

Happy Place it is not, but stupendous !

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 :  With some trepidation BLR focuses on south Asian Pamela Mala Sinha's script Happy Place. Largely because it is about seven women of mixed racial origins with mental health issues. They find themselves in a temporary sorority because each of them has attempted suicide. This, in mental health parlance, is the ultimate act of "decompensation" we're told. I fit none of those descriptors. Thus I can only approximate Sinha's voice even in a review. 
How the show is put together : It was helpful to read indigenous Canadian author Lee Maracle who was quoted in Vancouver Metro this week. Her characters don't evolve or perform or even speak in traditional linear fashion, she said. Western writers tend to favour scripts that lead to resolution in their plots & characters. By contrast her stories, she noted, are more open-ended, uncertain, indeterminate : the action simply stops where it does. Why? Because that piece has ended. More story is sure to ensue.

Such it is with Happy Place. The six inmates and their doctor explore somewhat fitfully the women's individual breakdowns that led them to the edge so they now are on suicide watch at a $1,000 per day private care facility. 

Prime Vancouver talent Diane Brown, Nicola Cavendish, Sereana Malani, Adele Noronha, Colleen Wheeler, Laara Sadiq and Donna Yamamoto are a wholly rich ensemble of women in a private mental health care facility whose stories tear each of them apart and bring them together, too. 
Their crises are varied : a stepmom fears losing her stepson when his dad deserts her for another. A middle-age woman has had a hysterectomy trauma. Another fusses constantly about a pregnancy that could be phantom. A former cocaine partier can't forgive herself a babysitter's molestation of her 3-year-old son. A rape victim struggles, vainly, to find the courage to move on after a half-decade of repressed memory. Then there's one who, perhaps saddest of all, finds depression just clings to her as if from congenital melancholy -- i.e. when the blues hit they hit her hard and long and true.

What the script brings to the stage : Whenever institutional mental health treatment arises in the arts the Ken Kesey character Nurse Ratched from Cuckoo's Nest invaribly jumps into view (her name a hybrid of "wretched" and "ratshit"). Happy Place is less a self-contained story than Kesey's and has no diabla character up-close-&-personal. Rather the play is a series of linked monologues and narratives that are teased out across 90 minutes. By the end the Why? and What next? questions are never fully satisfied or resolved -- a dramatic structure Lee Maracle would understand intuitively. Experts say this is typical in real-time, too : mental illness sequences are most often situational and transactional, not transformational.

Production values that shine : The current script is a vast re-write by Ms. Sinha of her 2015 original that ran on for some 130 minutes. For its length and lack of crispness it was slammed by critics -- even from those who otherwise liked her take on the somewhat amorphous topic of what mental health is, and isn't.

At the hands of Touchstone artistic director Roy Surette who hand-picked the cast, the result is as the hed above states : stupendous. Stunning. Brilliant. Inspired. Sublime.

The Pam Johnson set utterly befits a wealthy private treatment facility -- rich-y touches throughout. Adrian Muir's lighting effects, for their part, are arresting, e.g. his muted pin-spots on the sleeping inmates' faces is a unique dramatic touch never before seen and completely compelling. Costumes by Christine Reimer are befitting each character's personality and their various social steppes.

Acting pin-spots : The women's stories emerge in staccato and syncopated fashion through "reveals" and "tells" that creep forth word-by-word, line-by-line : it is difficult, therefore, to embrace any of them as a wholly developed persona

That said, of course Nicola Cavendish commands her role as the group's neurotic and waspish mama-bear. She never fails. She never disappoints. Beyond that it would be unfair to single out one actor over another. Each contributes wondrous excellence to the piece. Suffice to say this is altogether stellar Vancouver stage talent. That they are gathered in one place at one time is pure blessing. As an ensemble they are organic and symbiotic and simply not to be missed. 

Who gonna like :  People who like serious small-stage drama with flicks of comic sidebars are ripe for this. Want a flavour of what mental illness looks like, how random and sporadic and asymmetrical it can be? Sinha's script is your starting point. If, like me, there has been suicide among family and friends, Happy Place will bring on many moments that put you in a sad and tearful place instead. 

Make no mistake : this is truly a marvel of intense dramatic immersion in a topic that is evermore timely in the scattered world we all seem to inhabit. We may wish it not but our attention spans are now program'd to inhabit just the nano-second social media requires.

So try this instead. For an embracing and enveloping evening of "strangers are but friends you haven't met yet", you'll come away not only enriched but almost stunned by the experience this troupe delivers. No nanoseconds here. It will all linger.

Particulars :  Produced by Touchstone Theatre in association with Ruby Slippers Theatre -&- Diwali in BC.  At the Firehall Arts Centre, Gore @ Cordova. Until October 29th. Tickets & schedule information via or by phone at 604.689.0926.

Production team : Director Roy Surette (newly returned to Touchstone Theatre as its Artistic Director). Set Designer Pam Johnson.  Costume Designer Christine Reimer.  Lighting Designer & Production Manager Adrian Muir.  Original Music & Sound Design Dorthy Dittrich.  Stage Manager Susan D. Currie.  Assistant Stage Manager Denay Amaral.  Props Carol Macdonald.  Technical Director Scott Zechner.  Head Scenic Painter Justus Hayes.  Scenic Painter Lauren Gorlewski.  Head Carpenter Kyle Sutherland.  Carpenter Jesse Hendrickson.  Scenery built at Great Northern Way Scene Shop.  Publicist Jodi Smith.

Performers :  Diane Brown (Joyce).  Nicola Cavendish (Mildred).  Sereana Malani (Celine).  Adele Noronha (Samira).  Laara Sadiq (Nina).  Colleen Wheeler (Rosemary / Krista).  Donna Yamamoto (Dr. Louise Stratton).

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