Trois: A Ménage à Blah
The great thing about living in Ottawa is that there is no shortage of theatrical events taking place around town. This theatre community in particular has such an incredible desire to create and produce new local theatre and as such this town has developed a number of serious theatre creators. Take for example, May Can Theatre, Dead Unicorn Ink, and Grimprov who have all established themselves as fan favourites at both the Ottawa Fringe and the Fresh Meat Theatre Festival. Now they have all come together to put up three thirty minute original pieces over three nights aptly named Trois, which ran February 28th to March 1st at Arts Court Theatre.
The night which I attended started out with May Can’s What About Horses. Created and performed by Tony Adams and Cory Thibert it is a decidedly darker departure from their previous show Happiness. Grief counsellor Luke (Thibert) is fed up with having to listen to his clients who he feels aren’t doing anything to help themselves and he often turns to cocaine in order to relax. Allister (Adams) is a magician whose greatest accomplishment to date is consistently booking birthday parties for small children.
After a particularly bad day at the “office”, Allister is confident he’ll never work another birthday party again. He gives in to Luke’s offer to help him cope and the two embark on a coke-induced journey attempting to uncover Allister’s true magical ability. Though much hilarity ensues, ultimately neither character expects the irrevocable end result.
I have to commend the team and May Can for continually trying to push themselves in new and different directions while maintaining the familiar elements that this community has come to love. The dialogue between the two characters is not out of the ordinary for this company. The banter and conversation feels natural and realistic, as if the two actors themselves were having a regular conversation on stage. This ease and comfort no doubt comes from the years of working together. Furthermore, the text itself is quite funny eliciting lots of laughs from the audience though it also asks some bigger and darker questions.
Direction by Madeleine Boyes-Manseau is simple yet effective. The stage is used in its entirety, complete with entrances and exits, with the actors venturing out into the crowd only when necessary. The beginning moments of the piece where the actors, maintaining opposite sides of the stage, engage in synchronized gestures and alternating monologues, in which the concepts of death and magic are presented in relation to one another, are very effective in setting the ominous tone for the show.
Moreover, the constant drug use throughout the piece is just enough for us to question the agency of the characters in the final scene without ever breaking into Wolf of Wall Street territory. Simply put, while the substance serves to make the characters far less inhibited, they remain in full control of their actions at all times. This is what allows the final scene to possess its incredibly disturbing sadness.
What About Horses while being at once classic May Can, is also representative of a natural progression towards more somber material: stuff that’s not afraid to ask gritty questions and doesn’t shy away from unhappy, messy endings. This particular piece has lots of potential for further development, though the timing feels right clocking in at approximately thirty minutes. I think the team could go even further at contrasting the comedic moments and the moments of malice between the two roommates (i.e. the scene about the hydro money) which would deepen the undertones of dark comedy. Nevertheless this is a strong, mature piece from the May Can front and I look forward to seeing more theatre of this calibre from this company in the future.
Next on the agenda was Dead Unicorn Ink’s The Acceptable Appearance Theory, written by Victoria Luloff and company co-founder Patrice Ann Forbes. The premise of the show is interesting enough: in a world where your life’s history is etched on your skin, one group seeks to eradicate these marks via what is called the acceptable appearance theory discovered by a, now deified, Man in the Sky (Ted Forbes). By destroying these marks no one is able to use your personal history against you. The idea that a cult, if you will, of predominantly women preaching an acceptable appearance theory based off the discoveries of a man could have been explored much further.
However, the interesting premise stops there. The play then follows the events that transpire when Mark (Aaron Lajeunesse) brings his new love interest, Dana (Forbes), to meet his mother, Ms. Cadence (Luloff), who also spearheads their local Acceptable Appearance Theory (AAT) chapter. Despite much pressure from the members of the group, Ms. Cadence, and even to a degree Mark himself, Dana adamantly refuses to remove her marks and at the end of the show we are hit over the head repeatedly with the overall message: accept yourself for who you are; embrace your flaws; and be proud of your struggles. The cheesy love story and the heavy reliance on pedantic morals take away any potential depth from this piece and only gives it a superficial feeling.
The execution of this text leaves a lot to be desired. The lack of solid direction, further evidenced by the fact that a director is not credited in the program, leads to supremely messy staging. Performers are constantly running into one another as scenes transition and numerous moments take place out in the crowd which is annoying not only having to physically turn around constantly, but more so because you are fighting against the stage lights just to see the performers.
The design of the show is certainly intriguing. While the diagram of the acceptable appearance theory is a completely unnecessary obstacle remaining on stage through the entire play and could have been turned into one of the many projections, the hanging bed sheet provides the actors with some clever stage business through its multiple uses. Moreover, the personal history marks themselves are detailed and creative on Forbes and clearly representative of Dana’s character, yet they are nowhere near this detailed on Ms. Cadence under the black-lights. The cartoon eyebrows and the non-descriptive squiggles on her legs only serve to make her look like she was the first one to fall asleep at a party. Had they been more stylized we would have gotten a better idea at exactly what Ms. Cadence was trying to eradicate and thus providing a more thought-provoking foil to Dana’s character.
The characters and the actors themselves are completely one dimensional. Luloff’s Ms. Cadence is no more than a watered down Regina George from Mean Girls with little to no variety in expression or physicality. Dana and Mark are portrayed like two sixteen year olds caught in the first throes of puppy love rather than the mature consenting adults who are considering a serious life together. The rest of the ensemble, made up of this year’s former OTS students, serve to sit in the audience for 98% of the show piping in with one or two lines each (with the exception of Kevin Reid as Daniel and Bobby Robert as Peggy), a decidedly unfortunate waste of what had potential to inject some new and fresh talent into this company.
To conclude, while the premise of this show certainly has the ability to be compelling, the end product is extremely dissatisfactory. It lacks a sense of maturity that I would expect to see developing in a company that has been producing their own theatre for three years now. A strong director and/or dramaturg could really help this piece for a start; someone who could provide and stick with an actual overall concept of a text, who could give the text and its characters more depth and nuance, and instill stronger and more effective staging practices. Without this sense of direction The Acceptable Appearance Theory is a lacklustre and immature offering to be made to the regular theatre-going audiences found at Trois.
Finally to end off the evening, Grimprov presented their long-form improve show Start Start Energy Officers. Created and performed by Joel Garrow, Mike Kosowan, and Drew McFadyen with musical accompaniment by DJ Helicase the piece begins with a suggestion of a prominent teenage problem (in this case it was public masturbation…) that becomes exploited by villainous outer-space puppets and against which our teenage superheroes, the Energy Officers, must combat.
This show has a lot going on on-stage, though as far as improv goes…perhaps not so much. It could be a strong piece, but its lack of coherence, organization, and the weak improv material gives it the feeling and appearance of three guys goofing off on stage. The unfortunate part is that, similar to Dead Unicorn Ink, I’ve seen these guys when they’re on their A-game and they’re fantastically funny, but this piece is certainly not their best work.
To be honest, I have yet to see a piece of long-form improv that I like, much preferring the spontaneity of the short-form style and this is where I believe Grimprov’s strength lies. This isn’t to say that the troupe doesn’t have the ability or talent to pull of long-form, however the major problem with Start Start Energy Officers is that it seemed incredibly unrehearsed which, I know, is a trifle ironic for an improv company, but it is what ultimately kills a lot of the potentially killer fight choreography.
There was a lot of scrambling behind the flats for puppets and props which lead to a number of awkward moments where the audience is left staring at an empty stage. The show could be effective if the performers familiarized themselves a little more with the piece (especially the fight choreography with all of the puppets) or if there were additional opportunities for audience participation it might have allowed the guys to go off in new and different directions rather than feeling stuck with one half-baked suggestion.
This brings me to my overall conclusion of Trois as a whole. Looking back on the Facebook event page the evening is advertised as being a night of “great revelation” and “astounding theatre”, yet from the three pieces I saw only one company makes good on this promise. So my suggestion to the other two companies would be this: if you’re going to use words like “great” and “astounding” and “thrilling” to describe your work, you had best come correct.
Canadian theatre critic Nathan Cohen once said that it isn’t for a critic to “dictate the taste of theatregoers, ordinary or otherwise, although I do reserve the right to question the taste of directors and writers. A critic…by the very nature of his profession…can’t afford to be lax in his views. Theatregoers can, and often are.” Simply put, if you want to be taken seriously and professionally, and hope to attract this type of audience, your work must ultimately reflect this mentality also.