Last week I was invited to the opening of “Paradise Garden”, the premier production by Arts Club Theatre Company of Lucia Frangione’s (yet another Canadian playwright who deserves a Wikipedia entry) new play.
Set “off the coast of the Gulf Islands” (an in-exact phrase if there ever was one), “Paradise Garden” tells a story of star-cross love between Day, played by Kevin McDonald, a slacker Islander who’s inherited the rambling family estate, and Layla, the daughter of Turkish parents who’s renting on Day’s property. Layla, played by Frangione, ministers to her dying mother and clashes with her stubborn, traditional father. On the other side of the hedge, Day struggles to find his way in the world among the wreckage of his parents’ divorce–she’s a fake-breasted cougar and he’s a curmudgeonly pot farmer. Both characters suffer from a delayed childhood–they’re still under their parents’ wings, despite being in their late 20s when the play opens.
Listening to Frangione’s text, I remember that I’d seen another of her plays, “Espresso”, a few years back at Pacific Theatre. Both plays are rich with lush imagery, as evocative as her name. She’s got a knack for rapidly leading us from the mundane to the visceral without forcing the transitions. “Paradise Garden” is wordy, but in a light, spoon-fed kind of way that’s totally forgivable.
I was less forgiving of a device in which the lead characters spoke of themselves in the third person. There didn’t seem to be a rationale for this trope–neither character was particularly alienated from their true selves–so it just felt forced. I could have also done without Adam and Eve metaphors (maybe that’s more in the staging than the script?), and some criticisms of Canadian culture felt tired.
Capillaries or Seaweed?
The cast was strong, though the female actors felt more fully realized, more comfortable in their skin. McDonald, in particular, took a long time to find his feet. He’s got a lot to balance in maintaining Day’s laissez-faire outlook while still seeming appealing enough to overachieving Layla’s. Frangione gives Day an unexpected educational upgrade in the second act, probably to satisfy this requirement.
Morris Ertman and Ted Roberts seemed to struggle in realizing Frangione’s vision of the setting. She provides tons of on-stage business and textual indications about the setting, but Roberts’ set seemed to be more a compromise than a bold statement. I either wanted less set, and we rely on Frangione’s words, or a totally realistic set. In any case, the actual set featured a kind of over-sized blue capillary system above a pool and archway. We spend 120 minute wondering why it’s there, and the payoff doesn’t quite feel worth the effort.
I sound like I’m down on the production, but I’d recommend “Paradise Garden” to somebody looking for an inoffensive but pleasing night at the theatre. It runs through April 11 at the Stanley Theatre. There’s some nudity, mostly of the male variety.