Sans Sense: A Strong Showcase

Brianna McFarlane

Despite the program telling you exactly ‘what to expect’, I never quite know just what to anticipate when Fraser MacKinnon helms a production. This, by no means, is a criticism. In fact, if the pieces themselves are of any indication, MacKinnon has quite the knack for curating exciting and original work. Sans Sense, presented by We Art Ottawa, is an evening showcasing four short plays, all directed by MacKinnon at the ODDBox. While the acting fell flat for me at times, the texts are more than substantial enough to make up for it.

It was refreshing walking into the black box studio at the Ottawa Dance Directive and seeing it dressed like a traditional theatre space, flats and all. The set design itself is fairly non-descriptive of time and place, which allows it to transition from piece to piece effectively. The set still has plenty of character, however, with elements such as a striking red wall with only the word ‘phere’ stenciled in white; the texture of the folding flats in their zig-zag shape creating lovely shadows across its expanse; and the gold framed portrait of the original Hulkamaniac, WWE Superstar Hulk Hogan himself in all his shirt-tearing glory.

The evening starts with a vignette entitled Shooting the Poodle, written by Stuart Ross and performed by Joel Garrow, best known for his work with local improve troupe Grimprov. The text is an interesting tale of a man named Bernie and his stand-off against his wife’s poodle. With his wife staying at her mother’s, Bernie has taken matters into his own hands in dealing with Taffy the poodle once and for all. Though the exact reason of Bernie’s aggression towards the dog remains unknown, he goes so far as to hire a body guard to protect him while also keeping a pistol continually trained on the seemingly innocent creature. Taffy, unsure of what all this means, just sits there with her tongue lolling.

Garrow is well cast in this text; his experience with improve is evident as he builds the scene seemingly out of thin air and transitions between characters smoothly and distinctly. His presence onstage keeps you engaged and eager to know what happens to poor Taffy. Each character is exaggerated and slightly outrageous, which adds a good deal of humour to the scene.

We are then told to put our “artsy hats” on as the scene ends and Garrow transitions into the next piece via George Clooney, the television show E.R., and a “live birth”. Much laughter ensues. This segue is particularly fitting as Fish, written by Todd Hammond and performed by Will Lafrance, also contains a very unusual birth.

This one-man show takes us on a journey of rejection and self-acceptance, which is a tale we’ve certainly seen before, only not quite like this. The protagonist chronicles his life growing up part fish and his lifelong quest to find belonging and a sense of home. Although I do feel that this text would benefit from a little fat trimming, particularly around the actual birthing moment, in my mind this piece is the strongest of the four.

It’s poignant and both heart-warming and wrenching without being overly sentimental. It’s relatable without being superficial, something that can be difficult to achieve for a budding young playwright, and it carries immediacy to its message that transcends the literal aspect to the text. Namely, that we’re all just searching for “something that can’t be grasped; something that’s free of names, titles, and histories.” Overall, Fish is a lovely piece.

While I have previously seen Mr. Lafrance in quite a few shows, I think that this show contains some of his strongest acting to date. I appreciate that he takes his time delivering the text, mindful of letting each and every line wash over the audience (despite seemingly getting over a cold, mind you). He manages to bring both a sardonic humour and tenderness to the piece and, it suffices to say, I was “hooked” from start to finish.

The next transition serves as a prelude to No, Please, written by Sean Callaghan. The scene opens up with the Woman, played by Marissa Caldwell, waiting for her train in somewhat of a reverie with the contents of her purse spilling out beside her on the ground. She is met by Robert, played by Garrow, who informs her about her purse and the two engage in somewhat of an awkward conversation continually interrupted by the arrival and departure of trains.

I realize that this vignette is supposed to set up the relationship for the following show, yet I did not get any chemistry from these two performers. Caldwell, in an attempt to seem sad and distracted, is expressionless and blank for the majority of the scene and the conversation between the two doesn’t seem to propel the action or build character and chemistry. While I understand the desire to have this transition, the fact that the intermission happens directly after this piece makes it feel a little out of place, and perhaps even unnecessary considering we get the lo-down of this entire scene later on in No, Please.

After intermission, the audience re-enters the studio where the set is now drenched in red light and we hear the pleasured moans of two characters off-stage alongside a news report playing on the preset radio. Another character, known only as the Man (played by LaFrance), enters the scene, and when Robert and the Woman step out from backstage, we simultaneously realize that not only is this  a continuation of the previous piece, the Man is the Woman’s husband. No, Please is a story that starts out feeling like a light-hearted comedy, yet gets progressively more ominous as the Woman tries to recall her entire day’s events to her husband over dinner.

The initial feeling that comes from this script was that it has some very Pinter-esque menace to it, yet unfortunately  the performers are not overly successful in maintaining this feeling consistently throughout the piece. Caldwell especially is unsure of her character’s arc as she gives little to no variety in expression or voice throughout her long speeches. During the moments when her mind goes blank it doesn’t actually look like she’s trying to remember her story and, furthermore, as the story progresses it doesn’t seem like she becomes increasingly bothered or frustrated that she can’t seem to remember things that happened only hours ago. However, the actress does have an interesting texture to her voice that gives her some presence on stage.

Moreover, many of her actions seem unmotivated; for example when she tells her husband, finally, about her affair with Robert, it is difficult to see what she is trying to get out of her husband. This is a moment where the undertones of menace could have been played up more. To Caldwell’s credit though, her speech about not truly knowing anyone is delivered well and is quite haunting.

Lafrance does an admirable job playing the strong alpha-male, though I do think he was also a little unclear of his character’s arc as his climactic decision seems a little irrational considering the short time we see the Man’s feelings and frustrations build. It’s evident that the Man is  waiting for his wife to tell him how she met Robert and exactly when she decided to go through with this affair despite the fact we are told that they married for love.  The fact that she keeps rambling on about the plethora of individuals she met along her way while also completely forgetting whole parts of her story, taking long awkward pauses to try and remember, should serve to anger the Man even more considering he almost literally caught them both with their pants down. Garrow, while featured only slightly in this piece, manages to react well to the awkward tension created by him and LaFrance at the beginning of the show, though I would argue most of this tension leaves when Robert does.

The red and blue lighting effects, a strong directorial choice by MacKinnon, that happen each time the Woman forgets a major part of her story, are seemingly there to create a sense of foreboding within the audience, and I felt these effects should have highlighted the underlying menace. Unfortunately, the potential of these effects is lost due to this lack of tension throughout the piece. In sum, there is no doubt that this is a solid piece of writing, but the performance itself could have benefitted from a little more time in the developmental process.

The evening culminates with another small vignette written by Ross and performed by Garrow called The Engagement. It is certainly an appropriate way to send off the audience as the character recites the many excuses we create to remove ourselves from various social situations. Garrow’s goofy performance is welcome and necessary considering the particularly dark ending of No, Please, and it allows the audience to laugh sufficiently, breaking the intensity of the previous scene.

In short, leaving the opening night of Sans Sense, I certainly feel that this cast will only get stronger over the course of their run and overall  this is a strong and commendable showing by the folks at We Art, and deserves a large audience. This is theatre worth talking about, people! Sans Sense is playing until April 13th, check it out while you still can!

Sans Sense presented by We Art

Directed by Fraser MacKinnon

Shooting the Poodle by Stuart Ross

Fish by Todd Hammond

No, Please  by Sean Callaghan

The Engagement by Stuart Ross

Featuring Marissa Caldwell, Joel Garrow, and Will Lafrance