Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Misery will chill & thrill & scare big-ish
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 : Misery is as misery does. You are a serial 19th century English romance novelist. In the 9th and final sequel you kill off your main character, Misery Chastain. That was months back. Now you are at a favourite Colorado retreat to do up the finishing touches on your first "serious" novel. Your new mode is all eff-word stuff about 1980's street life in NYC. 

While retreating in Silver Creek you and your Mustang wind up in a wicked wintertime car wreck. Your legs are busted up big and your shoulder's kaputt, but ex-nurse divorcee Annie Wilkes sees the crash and rescues you. She carts you off to her isolated mountainside cabin to recuperate.

Meanwhile she discovers you are the famous novelist Paul Sheldon. She thrills at the fact she considers herself your "number one fan" and you're her patient. But she's gobsmacked and venomous when she reads that you have Misery die in childbirth in Book Nine. In short order you realize you've got a Nurse Ratched on your hands -- a gaoler and tormentor, by no means a guardian angel. 

The eyes are window to the soul. Witness "caregiver" Annie Wilkes (Lucia Frangione) who uses knife-sharp wit to keep novelist Paul Sheldon (Andrew McNee) focused on how best to keep Misery alive.
Photo credit : David Cooper
The unhinged psychotic orders you to resurrect Misery in another re-write. Or else. The metronome clacks louder and more menacingly with each desperate second that ticks by. This stranded cabin where you're captive may well be your sarcophagus.

How it's all put together : This is the play version of the 1987 Stephen King novel Misery that Rob Reiner made into a movie in 1990 starring Kathy Bates and James Caan. Screenwriter William Goldman did both the earlier movie and now 25 years later the live stage script -- he of Butch Cassidy and All the President's Men Academy Award pedigree. N.B. Not being a fan of horror stuff, I may be the only adult in the Lower Mainland who's neither read King's American gothic novel nor seen the flik -- so it's fresh eyes for certain on the ACT chiller at play here.

Of the production, outgoing Artistic Director Bill Millerd enthuses about this swansong season show : "Staging a thriller by the master of the genre is a rare opportunity and we're excited to bring something quite different with this show. Director Rachel Ditor has given our longtime Properties Master Michael Gall and his team the chance to really show their talent for special effects." 

When you're a banged-up hostage in a demonic psychotic's mountain cabin that reeks of mildew & mothballs & her long-dead Mama, even autographing a book for your "number one fan" is excruciating.
Photo credit : David Cooper
Production values that enhance the script : The Lauchlin Johnston set by itself is no doubt worth the price of admission here. Various pop-out doors open-&-shut along a proscenium wall to give a single platform the sense of a whole house. The transforming kitchen -- from nurse-y antiseptic to hoarder's pig-sty -- was choice. Cliffhanger black-&-white movies inspire the music that accompanies effective lighting spots. Together they help isolate and enhance Mr. Sheldon's various phases of pain during his ever-so-slow journey to regain the manly strength needed to save himself. 

Plotline fresnels and acting pin-spots : Of the NYC Broadhurst Theater mount starring Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf two years back, numerous critics complained that the short 90-minute run-time of the show nevertheless dragged. Reason cited was that the live-stage script by Goldman lacks punch and verve and zing.  Zippy dialogue and actors who deliver it crisply are necessary to replace all the moods clever camera shooting can create. 

Director Ditor's ACT stage version manages to stretch 90 minutes into 130, though unlike the NYC version it does have an intermission. So what is gained in fattening it all up?

Here's the difference : casting, blocking, comic effects hi-lited almost panto style. Brava! to veteran Ditor for hand-picking Andrew McNee and Lucia Frangione (who is a Nicki Cavendish clone if ever were one) to wring every ounce of satire and farce and near slap-sticky nonsense out of a book originally designed to scare the pants off readers for weeks after they finished it. 

Even the execution of the nosy throwaway sheriff Buster (Munish Sharma) was goofy good fun in spite of the murderous mayhem that is the stuff of USA front pages every day. As if taking a page from the Coen Brothers' Fargo foolery.

McNee's performance portraying horrific physical pain along with a mental anguish rimmed with irony was stupendous. No question he drops dead, fig., the moment he gets home after each show. As a Kesey-esque "Big Nurse" knock-off, Lucia Frangione's bouncy girly fan-worship was delicious. Inspired offsets to Annie's menace that is her core self. Just a delight, both!

Who gonna like : No question this is different theatre. The crowd was engaged and amused -- riotously! -- throughout the night. Never before have I witnessed theatre-wide applause when a villain's blood spatters the upstage wall. Hard to imagine that in a typical Billy Wilder piece, say. 

As noted above, horror stuff is not this reviewer's gig. Reality bites give me enough. But this is less Wait Until Dark than knock-off Rocky Horror Picture Show or Spamalot. See it enough times and no doubt you'll be rhyming right along with the cast on stage. 

A choice cut at misery-made-chuckly -- not Yech!y gory -- awaits enthusiasts in this remastered and repurposed Stephen King original.

Particulars :  Script by William Goldman. Based on the Stephen King novel. Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  At the Granville Island Stage.  Run-time 130 minutes, with intermission.  On until May 5, 2018.  Schedules and ticket information @ or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production crew :  Rachel Ditor, Director. Lauchlin Johnston, Set Designer.  Stephanie Kong, Costume Designer.  Andrew Pye, Lighting Designer.  Murray Price, Original Music & Sound Designer.  Rick Rinder, Stage Manager.  Shelby Bushell, Apprentice Stage Manager.

Performers :  Lucia Frangione (Annie Wilkes).  Andrew McNee (Paul Sheldon). Munish Sharma (Buster). 


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