by Kristen Thomson
Directed by Chris Abraham
At Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto. January 5-20, 2018
Streetcar Crowsnest (at the intersection of Carlaw and Dundas) is a perfect venue for a marvellously performed farce about a wedding reception that goes off the rails from the start. The space still functions as a venue for real weddings, and Artistic Director Chris Abraham has evidently done something very right as a theatre producer in securing millions of dollars of funding for this spanking new theatre that has a flexible geometry as far as audience seating is concerned. Not really in the round, it nevertheless affords genuine intimacy between spectator and actor, and it was a very pleasurable first experience for me when I attended the media opening of Kristen Thomson’s two-act, two-hour+ farce, a remount from last season, with three cast changes from the original version.
There have been other wedding farces, of course. Shakespeare created some himself, and on the surface, the theme and genre seem like a quick pudding for general tastes. Most of latter-day wedding farces exploit an interaction with the audience, and this one does too, but in a much more limited way so as not to digress from the principal satire on various human foibles and vulnerabilities arising from true or mistaken identities. Thomson, who began her acting and playwriting career with masks, knows full well that the comic mask can be both merry and mischievously hurtful, a grimace or leer often breaking into its subject. As Walter Kerr once wrote: “Comedy looks you in the eye, ready to spit in it.” And to this can be added a well-known wisdom that comedy is drama with its own peculiar timing and tone.
Chris Abraham has that timing and tone down pat in this production—surely his most deftly handled comic production since his marvellous The Matchmaker at Stratford some years ago. That earlier production had several comic geniuses at play, starting, of course, with Thornton Wilder’s play and continuing with such expert performers as Seana McKenna, Tom McCamus, Geraint Wyn Davies, Mike Shara, and Nora McLellan, who can speed their way around a comic course with deft timing and truth. This one has one of the greatest Canadian comic actors (Tom Rooney), an incredibly versatile leading actress (Moya O’Conell), and four other performers who create utter gems on stage. The set-up is simple: the audience is seated under the pretence of being guests at a wedding reception for Sherry and Jack, Jr. (who never physically appear on stage) in an elegantly decorated hall (designed by Julie Fox with beads and white drapes). Those in the front row actually get seated at banquet tables in the second act, where they are served wine or water as things go from bad to worse as far as family clashes thicken, starting off with traded insults by father-of-the-groom Jack Sealy-Skeetes (note the double-barrel surname, a sly dig at a pretentious upper class) and mother-of-the-bride Maddie Boychuk, who proceeds to get increasingly soused and physically aggressive with the help of both cheap wine and costly imported champagne. Mayhem ensues, as dozens of relatives and others (including waiters, waitresses, and videographers), all played by a cast of six with amazing dexterity and accuracy as they whiz, creep, drift, roar, or slip in and out of the action. The off-stage costume changes are done at lightning speed, which is also a testament to the clever costuming of Ming Wong.
Tom Rooney is perfect as snobbish, autocratic Jack,Sr., sneering contemptuously at Jane Spidell’s coarse, alcoholic Maddie. Spidell (inheriting the role from Kristen Thomson) is utterly convincing as a woman who could down any liquor and probably eat any foe alive, including Jack or various other hapless women who cross her path, while Rooney does whiplash changes of character, playing Tony, Jack’s estranged, awkward, puritanical identical twin brother (former dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet), who has a deliciously funny sexy encounter on the sly with Spidell’s lusty Maddie. Later, in a long-winded, egregiously patronizing toast, Jack gives a shout-out or two to his twin (Rooney on pre-recorded video), before going even one (or maybe two) better, playing both brothers (without benefit of video or trick editing) in heated argument in the same scene. “I now realize that we two can never be in the same room,” the actor declares, with absolutely shrewd comic irony, performing what would ordinarily require a split-screen technique in film.
But as brilliant as these moments are, they are not isolated from other inspired portrayals. Moya O’Connell (easily one of the most accomplished leading actresses in any theatrical genre) plays Jack’s discontented, sexy spouse (in an American accent), and English friend of the bride. She plays both sexily and wittily. And it is an exceptional comic moment when as one or the other she protests: “What part of Gluten-free don’t you understand?” O’Connell also comes on later as muscle-bound, bearded Vlad (Sherry’s half-brother), with a thick East European accent and body-language to boot. But this isn’t the only case of cross-gender portrayal. Rooney himself appears in the second-half as Janice, Maddie’s older, brittle, intellectual daughter, in a strapless red gown, cap, and high heels, who gets to perform a tango with her Latin lover (a former bullfighter once gored), performed with sexy authority by Virgilia Griffith (replacing Bahia Watson of the original), who also plays Katrina, the female wedding planner under considerable stress and distress. There’s also Jason Cadieux (replacing the first season’s Tony Nappo) who is Edna Boychuk, a septuagenarian with a walker but a definite yen for naughtiness, and (in his own male gender) as the fixer lawyer who gets fired twice by Jack, Sr. Another amazing double act is Trish Lindstrom as an old dirty-minded geezer (the twins’ father) on a scooter and, better than anyone could have imagined, the awkward teenaged Tiger, Tony’s estranged son from Hamilton, a lad who looks sadly shy in his baggy pants and windbreaker, who sounds as if he is from the wrong side of the tracks, but who has artistic ambition, perhaps out of sorts with his sad upbringing. Lindstrom turns him into a genuinely touching figure, just as O’Connell does with her double ladies.
But there are a few wrong notes, one being the exaggerated, unconvincing and unnecessary circus frame around the story, another being Spidell’s portrayal of a pet dog (funny as it messes up easy tricks, but unconvincing at table), and a third being the laboured ending. Apart from these errors, there is a surfeit of wonders, including Thomas Payne Rider’s very sentimental but melodious pop chart tunes, and Kimberly Purtell’s expert lighting. A phenomenal entertainment with director Chris Abraham showing that he is both a populist and an artist who knows how to stage broad comedy with amplitude, puffed proportion, and thrusting truth.