Saturday 17 February 2018

Saltwater Moon a taffy-tug of love
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: 1926 Newfoundland. When it was its own country with dominion over its people and their life opportunities. Thousands dreamt of escape from The Rock to go see the lights of big-city T-O. Most who left never came back. Some who stayed had guilt, others felt grief and held grievances against those who fled.

Such is the backdrop of this love story, one of playwright David French's quintet of "Mercer stories" -- the tales of two generations of a former Newfie family who opted for Canada and struggled to make-do. This is a flashback chapter to some previously-produced Toronto stories of the Mercer clan that take place a couple decades hence.

Mary Snow (Mayko Nguyen) lights up the blue star of Vega for the man she's not sure she loves anymore Jacob Mercer (Kawa Ada) in this Romeo-&-Juliet with a happy-ending script.
Photo credit Joseph Michael

The show is magnificently simple and timeless : how love, actually, can manage to blossom, wilt, then rebloom between two feisty proud teens. Errant Jacob Mercer has returned to Coley's Point in Conception Bay to claim his true love Mary Snow he abandoned for Toronto. Left spontaneously, whimsically, more break-out than break-up. He has returned a year later almost as offhandedly and instinctively as he left -- once he heard from Mom, that is.

Mary, of course, has meanwhile resigned herself to a lifetime of local outpost living. Resignedly she engaged herself to balding, pipe-sucking high school teacher Jerome Mackenzie. He has introduced her to astronomy. She may have stars in her eyes, but Jacob meanwhile can barely suppress a blood grudge he holds against Jerome's dad Will. Has he come home to win back Mary's love or get even with Jerome's dad ?

How it's all put together : This is not a Gateway mount, it's a traveling road show brought west by Toronto's Why Not Theatre in a production by Factory Theatre. WNT's artistic director Ravi Jain quotes Kenyan dramatist Ngugi we Thiongo to proclaim "alternative visions of existence" are the "bedrock" of everything WNT produces.  E.g. whereas playwright French's 1984 script had precise set, costuming, and stage directions for Toronto's mainstream actors, Jain goes one better. In the opposite direction. His teen lovers Snow and Mercer (1) are non-white actors Mayko Nguyen as Mary and Kawa Ada as Jacob, and (2) they don't even try to fake Newfie accents. They are universal, not provincial.

Jain also strips the show of its detailed sets, of the usual telescopes that squinch down the sky's constellations as well as the called-for formal costumes -- all of which playwright French detailed meticulously in the script's margins. For costumes the cast wear the kind of day-to-day kick-around duds like they might sport just hanging out. But all the other complex set and stage directions are not lost completely. 

"Please join me...!" Jacob Mercer pleads of Mary Snow whom he jilted by walking out on her to  "escape" to Tornto a year before. 
Photo credit Joseph Michael
Because Jain introduces a narrator for the show, singer / guitarist Ania Soul who is perched upstage right on a music stool and recites French's script details off her Manhasset songsheet stand. Thus we learn the house is 19th century. That it is near the great big sea "to make easy access to the waters where they make their living". That Mary is designed to be get up in "a short-sleeved yellow satin dress".

And because the stars are so central to the plot and set, obviously they've got to be here. But in a nifty visual and thematic reversal, their brilliance emit from a dorado of slow-burn candles on the stage deck -- from the earth up instead of from the heavens down. And in a nearly 10-minute zen ritual while Soul sings to open the show, Mary draws long-neck matches delicately, almost reverently, out of a paper caisson. Ever-so-slowly and touchingly she sparks the 40+ tapers that have star power here.

Music alights with stars afoot as Jacob and Mary search out each other's hearts to the backdrop musical muse of Ania Soul behind. 
Photo credit Joseph Michael.

Production values that hi-lite the script : The stripped-bare minimalist stage design by Mr. Jain is inspired. It draws the audience's rapt attention to the dialogue and the nuanced interplay of the lovers with Ms. Soul as their muse and balladeer. Stage directions introduced as monologue. Clever !

WNT's resident production manager Kayleigh Krysztofiak designed a high-low sword-play of spotlights whose effect is as magical as it is simple. 

Blocking for the cast, for its part, is a study in understated rich intimacy. While Ms. Soul reads out the complex stage directions and the details Mr. French wished to see play out on the boards, the actors often remain as if frozen in aspic there but for their telling dialogue and facial expression.

Acting pin-spots :  Talk about equals. Ms. Nguyen and Mr. Ada are a perfect complement. As mentioned : Feisty. Stubborn. Righteous. But such delight to be had in Jacob's ironic commentary and playful toying with Mary about Jerome and his claim to be potent as well as the mythical? maybe? girlfriend Rose-of-Sharon in Toronto who he took to see Tom Mix movies. 

For her part Ms. Nguyen as Mary was punchy and proud and persuasive in her reluctance to re-engage, as it were, with the smart-ass folk-singer heartthrob Jacob. 

Balladeer / narrator Ms. Soul lived up to her name. Her humming aria during Mary's tale of her sister Dot sequestered in St. John's in some sort of girls' residential dormitory was elite stuff. My goodness.

Who gonna like : Are you a romantic? Did Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo & Juliet smack your heart? Did you ever have a teen crush / love that you may wonder -- somewhat hopelessly and forlorn and melancholy on a blue Monday -- Was that the true love of my life? 

Even if these markers aren't quite on, this is one of the most charming shows I have seen in some time. Ravi Jain was ingenious & visionary & consumed with insight to mount this old David French / Mercer family chestnut in such a compelling and refreshing way. 

While faithful readers know I am a big fan of gritty gut-biting theatre, Gosh! it was nice to be swept away this afternoon by such an expressive and absorbed troupe & their take on this classic script. I would do this all over in a heartbeat. 

And -- btw -- I'd happily go again if for no other reason than to witness anew Mayko Nguyen's zen candle-lighting ceremony / celebration done to Ania Soul singing "I could cry me an ocean / It was all in my head / My heart asked me why?" : amazing how such simple bits of live theatre can grab one and not let go.

Particulars :  Script by David French.  Produced by Factory Theatre on tour with Why Not Theatre. At the Gateway mainstage in Minoru Park through February 24th. On at Gateway Theatre, 6500 Gilbert Road, Richmond thru February 24, 2018. Tickets & schedule information via box office phone @ 604.270.1812 or on-line @ Run-time 90 minutes, no intermission.

Production crew : Director Ravi Jain. Lighting Designer & Production Manager Kayleigh Krysztofiak. Stage Manager Tamara Protic.  

Performers : Kawa Ada (Jacob Mercer).  Mayko Nguyen (Mary Snow).  Ania Soul (Music & Narration).


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