“Stop Making Sense”, Jonathan Demme’s groundbreaking Talking Heads documentary, begins with lead singer David Byrne walking onto a bare stage, carrying a ghetto blaster and an acoustic guitar. We can see rigging and ladders against the stage’s brightly-lit back wall as Byrne begins “Psycho Killer”. He accompanies himself on guitar and, apparently, a percussion loop on the ghetto blaster. Other musicians join Byrne throughout the set, and eventually screens are lowered to conceal the rear wall of the stage.
I thought about Byrne’s “Psycho Killer” as I walked across the floor of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre’s stage last night. I was there to attend Electric Company Theatre’s production of Tad Mosel’s “All The Way Home”.
The play is unusually staged. The audience and the actors share the set, a 1915 Kamloops home. We sat on benches, in chairs and on cushions on the floor. We become part of the set, sitting at one end of the dining room table and hunker around the bathtub. Beyond us are the three bare walls of the stage, and the closed curtain that separates us from the massive, empty auditorium.
It’s a long play, and a sobering one. It’s also full of movement and songs, and so I wasn’t bored despite its 150 minute duration. Actors Jonathon Young and Meg Roe are the heart of the big cast, and they both turned in delightful performances. I was reminded in particular of Roe’s sweet charisma on-stage. In many ways, her work here feels like a natural extension of her excellent work as the matron in “Penelopiad”.
“All The Way Home” is an intimate portrayal of a crisis that befalls a family, and their grief in its aftermath. Thanks to director Kim Collier’s intimate staging, I was occasionally less than a foot from an actor gripped with intense emotion. It’s an odd feeling, to be observing so closely but not participating. I felt a little like the beta gorilla in the troop, averting my eyes when they got too close. I was, to borrow from Mr. Byrne, tense and nervous.
There were about 20 teenagers from Arts Umbrella in the audience, and it was fun to watch them watch the action. I rarely experience theatre-in-the-round, and it’s rarer still that I do it flanked by so many young people. You could see dreams of becoming the next Meg Roe forming (or, more likely, solidifying) in their heads.
The play won the Pulitzer in 1961, and it feels very much a show from that period. It’s well-observed, and deceivingly simple in its structure, but it doesn’t have much new to say to today’s audience. There is the tiny joy of hearing local place names (though I did wonder whether Merritt had a movie theatre in 1915).
Yet Electric Company Theatre shows are often as concerned with the ‘how’ as the ‘what’. The blend of the modern and the post-modern–the realistic set furnishings combined with the bare walls of the stage–makes for an intimate if not immersive night at the theatre. It has some similarities to their 2010 “Tear the Curtain”, but it’s much tauter and far more fathomable. Plus there’s a terrific third-act reveal that delivers a rare treat to the audience.
Tickets are sold out for this show, but hopefully they’ll extend their run or remount it soon. You shouldn’t miss it.
The Trifecta of Directorial Tricks
This is kind of a footnote, and unrelated to the review. I mentioned that there was a bathtub on-stage. At one point an actor sits on the edge of it, and I genuinely wondered if she was going to get undressed and take a bath in some unbearably cold water. That might have seriously pushed the audience’s comfort level, but you can never go wrong with water on stage. One of my favourite ever shows at Victoria’s Belfry Theatre featured water. “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid” has a trough and a bath tub, if memory serves, and there’s a peculiar pleasure in the elemental sound of it sloshing around on-stage.
In thinking about water on-stage, I thought of two other great audience-pleasing tricks. First, you can never go wrong adding a song to a play. It can change a show’s pace and endear us to a singer. I’m not sure why, but I’m never disappointed to hear an actor break into song.
You also can’t go wrong getting the actor’s to prepare food on-stage. I remember another show at the Belfry–the name escapes me–where somebody cooked an entire meal of spaghetti on a functional kitchen. It worked so well as a kind of steamy, sensuous seduction of the audience.
I’m no theatre director, and maybe these are all rote cliches now. Still, the formula for the best play ever might be a dramedy about a cooking show host/marathon swimmer who occasionally sings negro spirituals for her own pleasure.
UPDATE: I was talking to somebody about a show that had the corner of a swimming pool on-stage. It was right at the lip of the stage, and walled with plexiglass, so that the audience could see into the pool. I asked the Belfry Theatre on Twitter, and they reminded me that the show was “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” by Terrence McNally. Here’s a photo from the show: