Chesterfield: So Close, Yet Sofa
This review was a particularly hard one to write. After the massive success of their previous show, Playing Dead and Space Mystery From Outer Space, the folks at Dead Unicorn Ink tried a new approach with Chesterfield, directed by Dead Unicorn co-founder Sylvie Recoskie. Unfortunately,Chesterfield left me feeling incredibly disappointed. Perhaps expectations were too high, but several production elements Dead Unicorn Ink shows have become decisively known for – outstanding design, strong directorial sense of style and genre, a sure-footed script – felt lacking on their journey to try something new.
Dead Unicorn Ink have always poured their heart and soul into every single show, no one can deny that; however, if Chesterfield indicates Dead Unicorn Ink’s new direction, the company needs to revisit several key aspects of their work going forward:
The script, written by Jane-of-all-trades Patrice Forbes, is well-written though it could benefit from one or two more workshop sessions. core plot is relatively simple: two newlyweds, Zack and Sarah, encounter the first serious problem in their marriage and, in typical sitcom fashion, bottle up their secrets until it’s too late instead of confronting one another like adults. The couples’ suspicions are voiced by a sadistic sofa that Zack, played by Drake Evans, buys for his wife Sarah, Gabbie Lazarovitz, as an anniversary present. The couch, voiced and operated by Aaron Lajeunessee, has a particularly murderous appetite and seeks to pit the couple against each other to bloody results.
Although the needed to expand on the character of Chesterfield further ( how did it get to the furniture store? Is it really possessed or is it just the subconscious voice of both characters?), it was generally funny. However, considering that the couch was the main focus of the show, there was not a lot of text dedicated to this could-be fascinating character.
The overall design of the production is rather underwhelming as well. Relying heavily on the magic of the couch, the rest of the stage seems to be only an afterthought. The attempt to recreate a newly moved-into house was not convincing: apart from a white drop cloth and some scattered paint supplies (that, I must admit, I didn’t even notice on stage until somebody pointed them out to me), there was no sense of space. Normally, this would be sufficient, but the entire stage floor was then covered with saran wrap which made it painfully obvious that its purpose on stage was for clean up only. Not to mention this plastic wrap becomes extremely slippery once drenched in stage blood and I was left worrying for the actors who slipped multiple times.
The couch is clearly Chesterfield’s piece de resistance and the things is does on stage are certainly exciting, but it also left me wishing for bigger risks. Having seen zombie puppets with exploding fabric brains, a giant man-eating lizard, the fully functional front end of a car, and tentacle hands that actually oozed, in the end the only real extraordinary thing Chesterfield has is a giant latex tongue. Considering that this prop was what the show was centred around, it could have been better executed. Actually, it needed to be better executed especially since Chesterfield’s major comparison is no doubt going to be Ashman and Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors. So, if you’re going to adapt an idea and/or concept that’s fairly well-known, you’d best be taking it to the nth degree.
This brings us to the directing which, I’m sorry to say, there really isn’t any. Especially not when compared to Dead Unicorn’s past productions which have had such strong and confident direction. This show doesn’t know what it is when it comes down to it. There is no specific genre, style, or concept which leaves the actors struggling and leads to a lot of overacting and missed rhythms. The stakes were not very well established in this play and it seems a little ridiculous that Sarah would go out and get a gun to shoot her husband simply because a talking couch told her to. There are moments of extreme awkwardness on stage such as any time Gabrielle Laz’s character faints or the fight choreography between Evans and Lajeunesse, who works double duty also playing the loyal friend Donald. Ultimately there is just no “why” or through line to the play and in the end, was not fun for me to watch.
Let me be clear: I am not trying to make a direct comparison between Chesterfield and past Dead Unicorn’s shows. I am, however, holding this show to the company’s current mandate in which “creating fun, eye catching theatre that is accessible to multiple audience groups, while maintaining stringent philosophy of stringent artistic merit” is the end goal. Knowing what Dead Unicorn is actually capable of, I felt that Chesterfield falls short. It’s full of great ideas, but they need to be pushed further and harder. I hope in preparation for their upcoming remount in October they look back on what made Playing Dead and Space Mystery so successful and reincorporate those elements back into Chesterfield.