A solid stage ensemble can almost always bring life to a dreary text, making it nigh enjoyable for the viewer. Take for instance Megan Piercey Monafu’s newest play A Little Fire, playing at Arts Court Theatre until January 30th. The text, in itself, still needs some work; however, the acting is what’s really worth watching.
The show centers on young Aithne (whose name directly translates from Celtic to a little fire) who is a celebrated child prodigy painter and who openly declares her inspiration to be of the divine sort. One day though, she stops receiving her visions from God and she fears that she will never be able to paint as truly or as purely as she once did. Unable to find solace in her exploitative and alcoholic father, Aithne begins turning to her church more frequently where she keeps a part-time job cleaning the premise.
Shortly thereafter, more problems arise for our protagonist which brings about her meeting with Roy, a (recently) failed teacher turned drunk. Through their limited, but ultimately significant, interactions both Aithne and Roy come to a moment of self-understanding allowing these characters to reclaim their agency. Having found proverbial (and literal) freedom, the play ends on a hopeful note but with admittedly many loose ends.
It’s clear (as we will discuss later) that playwright-director Monafu has done a good job casting and guiding her actors, however, I still find some of the mise-en-scene questionable. For example, the two moments where the scene reverts into slow-motion in order to depict a more violent or aggressive action. When it is not being used regularly throughout a performance, ‘slo-mo’ feels incredibly awkward and almost silly particularly when utilized alongside the realistic performance style set out by the director.
Another example would be the physical layout of the stage, which does not excite any compelling blocking or movement. It feels cluttered on the stage left side, where the majority of the set pieces reside, and deserted on stage right. Further, I find it increasingly difficult to subscribe to the idea that having a large bench placed dead centre stage will ever produce anything significant.
Bigger issues still, in my experience of this particular production, lie with the text itself which is, undoubtedly, still developing. Introducing an idea like divine artistic inspiration in relation to child prodigies is certainly interesting, but I don’t feel as though this version of this play-text gives us a substantial amount of contextualization about divine inspiration or child prodigies. Instead, we are presented with the respective stories of Aithne and Roy and how they end up meeting in jail. The relationship between the two (and similarly between Aithne and Jem) is quite nice at moments, if not a little conventional.
Additionally, it was difficult to locate a reasonable climax within this piece. Given that: the title of the show is A Little Fire, which we know to be a translation of the protagonist’s name; and Aithne, supposedly filled with divine inspiration (that is more often than not characterized by fire or flames), tells the audience near the beginning of the play that she’s been arrested for “arson or something”; and to finally have divulged later on that this fire is started by complete accident; I can’t help but feel a little cheated.
Moreover, if Aithne doesn’t set the fire on purpose (which could have made an interesting character choice), then how on earth is she even arrested? Does she confess to a crime that never actually takes place? Are we supposed to believe that homeless Jem doesn’t survive the fire (???) and the police suspect Aithne sets the fire on purpose? Do the police officers maintain some sort of evidence that this youth intentionally set the fire with a deliberate disregard for persons and/or property? It is hard for a spectator to suspend their disbelief on this matter when the text plays so heavily in the realm of realism. Especially when you consider the fact that arson has very particular legal definitions.
All this to say, the most compelling aspects to this text are found in Roy’s story and in the depth of Aithne’s monologues. Maybe it’s because I hold such an affinity for Death of a Salesman, but I certainly feel echoes of Miller when Roy speaks about failing as a teacher despite being passionate about teaching his entire life. There is something really powerful about this image of an individual being brought down by one of the things he loved and pursued most.
The imagery in the stories that Aithne tells to Roy are illustrative and full of shades and colours. It would have been nice to see some more of these images reflected in the chalk drawing on the stage floor which remains a great visual touch but could certainly encompass much more of the space. The contrast between Aithne’s heavenly visions and the darker, some-what macabre, tales she spins for her cell neighbour are delivered with a nice intensity and are mostly enjoyable to listen to (admittedly I zoned out in a couple places).
As previously mentioned, the acting in this show is quite good. Emily Bozik, as Aithne, has a lovely lightness to her stage presence and the character’s innocence and empathetic nature are very clear from the start. The portrayal of Aithne’s father, played by William Beddoe, feels a little stiff at first but by the end he oozes the perfect level of smarm that makes you just cringe in your seat. Carol Sinclair, as a myriad of roles (most notably Jem), brings power and great intensity to the cast, however, she tends to get stuck in the same vocal rhythm which can occasionally wander into poetry-slam territory. That being said, the recordings of Sinclair as the daytime talk-show host are very, very funny. Finally, Johnny Wideman (of Theatre of the Beat, who is co-producing with Abalone Productions on this production) delivers a powerhouse performance as Roy. The emotional states that this character transitions through are both visible and visceral, yet he’s never over the top.
A Little Fire, part of the 2015-2016 TACTICS season (as curated by Bronwyn Steinberg), has yet to find its stride as a piece of dramatic writing. It appears to sacrifice a deep and meaningful investigation about many of the concepts and images presented to its audience, in exchange for an arguably unnecessarily fragmented narrative about the fateful meeting of two individuals. Nevertheless, the quality of these performances is likely to make one more indulgent of the text’s somewhat implausible nature.