Friday 21 September 2018

Marion Bridge : wit & love capture family pathos
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 Concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl once famously observed : “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” And that is precisely the underpinning of Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor’s award-winning script Marion Bridge. 
Sisters Louise (Beatrice Zeilinger), Agnes (Lynda Boyd) and Theresa (Nicki Cavendish) find Marion Bridge, Cape Breton Island a fitting gathering spot to scatter family memories.
Photo credit : Kay Meek Theatre website.
Three grown-up sisters all gather at the family home in Sydney, N.S. because Mother is dying. Each sibling struggles with guru Adyashanti’s challenge : “No more battle with yourself. No more battle with life. No more battle with others. No more battle with God.” For most of MacIvor’s script, all three fail the challenge miserably : each leads a life of quiet desperation — with themselves, with one another, with both history and future. Such seem to be their life choices.

How it’s all put together : Middle sister Agnes (Lynda Boyd) escaped Cape Breton Island for Toronto to pursue the twin enticements of acting and alcohol. She is considerably more ept at the latter than the former. The daughter she adopted out as a teen mom lurks over the near horizon. Eldest sister Theresa (Nicki Cavendish) accepted Jesus as her personal saviour twenty years back but now doubts — she seeks reassurance he has the same saving grace as her beloved nunnery farmland in New Brunswick that she tills religiously. Youngest sister Louise (Beatrice Zeilinger) is a t.v. soap opera addict somewhere along the autism spectrum who longs to dream her own dreams and struggles to live in real time.

There is little fun, sport & amusement afoot when the three sniping sisters swap life tales and monologue their anxieties while mom dies, alone, upstairs in the family home.
Photo credit : David Cooper.
Such angst as this might easily bore the bejesus out of many who witness it being acted out. There but for, of course, the patented MacIvor wit and irony and dialogue by-play that single kids can only imagine but viewers from big families know intimately. No surprise Leo Tolstoy’s opening kicker to Anna Karenina pops into mind instantly : “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own fashion.”

What the show brings to the stage : MacIvor wrote both the stage play script and a screen version simultaneously. He enjoyed toying with their opposite qualities : how celluloid manipulates its audiences through camera angle and focus plus the twin colours of landscape and soundtrack. Versus live theatre that depends on dialogue to drive home its dramatic purpose and theme. (The play was nominated for a Governor General’s award. The movie won Best Canadian First Feature Film in 2002 @ TIFF.)

Director Roy Surette picked Tiko Kerr to design the simple homespun living room set where all the action — words chasing and tripping over one another — takes place. Each sister has lengthy monologues : Agnes about a drowning dream that has regular re-runs in her addled brain. Theresa’s holy communion with the land : “Farming is wonderful : getting your hands down there in the beautiful dirt. When you’re working it up to your elbow it starts to feel like liquid, think dark liquid, like the blood of the earth.” 

As eldest, Sister Theresa the nun -- a doubting Catholic dirt-farmer and chief caregiver to Mom during her deathbed vigil -- Nicki Cavendish has declared that Marion Bridge might well be her last hurrah on Canadian stages so she can spend more time flinging dirt in her home garden out in the Fraser Valley. Vancouver audiences pray that she -- like Saul on the road to Damascus -- will undergo a profound conversion moment. 
Photo credit : David Cooper.
Louise, for her part, finally breaks out of her t.v. phantasy world and buys a truck she now tootles around in : “(Most people are) not really driving, they’re really just trying to get somewhere. So you shouldn’t have a place in your head. Maybe you shouldn’t even know where you’re going. You’ll only know where it is when you get there. That would be best.”

Only when these alienated but ever-loving sisters travel from Sydney to Marion Bridge in Cape Breton do they — “Trite symbol warning!” — discover how to bridge the various gaps between themselves. 

Their memories of a feckless but mostly well-meaning mom who was a solitary tippler hiding behind stacks of books whose pages she never turned; an abusive and spiteful dad who ran off with a "hottie"; their current vigil for their mother who has decided she wants to die alone : mute from larynx cancer, she communicates through post-it notes adorned with a “a bunch of marks and squiggles”. 

At Marion Bridge 14 miles from home her brood of daughters now blithely toss the collected post-its to the heavens — forgiveness confetti celebrating how she lived life on her own terms. 

Production values that enhance the script : Tiko Kerr's set highlights "perception through abstraction" featuring asymmetrical trapezoids adorned with nature flourishes, an effort he terms an "opportunity to play". Offset by a musty farmhouse kitchen set and a solitary barcalounger for the t.v. pit, it allows the audience to focus on the actors and MacIvor's gatling gun dialogue they spit out. 

The plot is almost trite — even daughter Joanie who Agnes was forced by the Catholic hospital to give up for adoption winds up, like her mom, pregnant and abandoned as a teen. 

Yet the truths behind MacIvor's characters as sisters and adults — each choosing their own form of solitude as a coping mechanism — are not just touching but compelling. His use of monologues spoken directly to the audience work well indeed : "It's strange for me to be standing here talking to you, and some people would think it's strange for you to be sitting there listening to me," Louise declares as designer Michael K. Hewitt's spotlight snaps off. Nice.

Acting pin-spots : If this is Nicki Cavendish's swan song, she ends a remarkable career with yet again! another! utterly astonishing! turn of character-acting. As the tut-tutty spinster nun eldest sister, she reveals increasingly no end of suppressed twinkle and irony bursting from her soul during her onset of being woke : "If God is God he is not good / If God is good he is not God".

But this, truly, is just remarkable casting all 'round. Lynda Boyd, new to this viewer, possesses nuances of drunk delivery seldom better portrayed anywhere. Her dim mornings and mournings embrace the heart. As Louise, Beatrice Zeilinger's fixation on the t.v. characters Kara and Justin from the t.v. show "Ryan's Cove" and her spinnerama description of its melodramatic plot were choice, choice acting bits. Brava! to both. 

Who gonna like : Unless the show gets re-mounted — as it well deserves to, cross-Canada I would hope — there are but two performances left to see this wonderful piece : at Genesis Theatre in Ladner on Saturday night and a final matinee on Sunday. Better ensemble acting would be hard to find or remember in Vancouver. 

And set aside all predispositions to query "appropriation of voice" given Daniel MacIvor wraps his talent over, under, around and through three women sisters. This is stunning drama stunningly portrayed and executed. Kudos! without reservation to all involved.

Particulars : 

Produced by Wing & Prayer Productions. Two final shows at Genesis Theatre, 5005 45th Avenue at Delta Secondary School, Ladner on Saturday, September 22nd @ 7:30 and Sunday, September 23rd @ 2:30 p.m. 

Production crew : Playwright Daniel MacIvor.  Director Roy surety.  Set Designer Tiko Kerr.  Scenic Painter Tracy-Lynn Chernaske.  Lighting Designer Michael K. Hewitt.  Stage Manager Rick Rinder.

Performers : Lynda Boyd (Agnes).  Nicola Cavendish (Theresa).  Beatrice Zeilinger (Louise).

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