Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
A City,” produced by Necessary Angel Theatre Company and now playing at the Artscape Sandbox in Toronto, is one of the most refreshing and interesting new plays I have seen for a long time. Written by Greg MacArthur, the play is based on remembered, real-life experiences transformed into theatre. In fact, this is what our memories do all the time: transform raw experience into meaningful story. And often, as in this play, people who have lived through the same experience remember it differently, both contradicting and enhancing each other’s stories.
This comes out clearly in the dialogue, which is carefully crafted and beautifully spoken by the ensemble of actors to provide the rhythms, musicality, and edginess of everyday conversation – as well as some longer speeches which provide the framework for the play. It is based on based on conversations MacArthur held with the founders of the popular theatre company SideMart Theatrical Grocery in Montreal: Andrew Shaver, Patrick Costello, Graham Cuthbertson, Trent Pardy and Sarah Yaffe. MacArthur would like this play, the second of a trilogy, to explore the people in a kind of “golden age” of the arts that was coming to an end. He turns the real people into characters, and invents a fictional friend — the dramatic, high-energy, elusive “Shia La Beouf,” a painter and performance artist — to draw these characters together.
A simple tube of LED lighting on the floor creates the perimeter of the acting-space, with one opening for the actors to enter and exit. Another circular LED light hangs overhead. Rebecca Picherack, lighting designer and Andjelua Djuric, set and costume designer, have done a wonderful job in creating a space for the story to emerge. During the play, this “empty” space (like our imaginations) becomes filled with many changing scenes – a painting in the ceiling, seen by people undergoing near-death experiences; a city apartment shared by four friends; a Halloween party; a campsite on a remote lake; murals showing scenes from dying civilizations, from the fall of Rome to the U.S. Civil War.
Jennifer Tarver (current Artistic Director of the company) directs the actors with grace, precision, and vitality; the action flows smoothly and crackles with life. The four characters in the story shared an apartment and were all friends of Shia LaBeouf, who has died suddenly and mysteriously. The play shows their meeting several months after his death to reconnect, reminisce, and talk about their confusion and grief. The action flows from present conversations to memories of the past, with other and with Shia, a catalyst in their lives.
Amy Keating is appealing and outspoken as Gemma, the one woman in the group, sometime lover of Shia and also of Graham, played by David Patrick Flemming, who ably shows us his character’s tensions and loneliness . Justin Goodhand is smooth, handsome, and caring as Andrew, and Cole J. Alvis as Paddy is quirky with a boyish sweetness and humour, trying to help his friends find some rapport. (Alvis is a Metis theatre creator, outgoing Executive Director of the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance).
Each character’s own story is woven into their group story and experience; they are all trying to understand the past and searching for a way to move forward. The references to past civilizations – including the Egyptian King Tut, as well as the painting mentioned above – set this modern tale into a historical context, helping us see ourselves and the world in a wider perspective. And the play gives us the opportunity to reflect on our memories of our own friends and loved ones who have died, and the mystery of the adventure of being alive. Lyon Smith, sound designer, & Susanna Hood, movement coach, add to the play’s effectiveness.
Necessary Angel, founded in 1978 by Richard Rose (now Artistic Director of the Tarragon), is considered one of Canada’s most original vital creation & touring companies. A City is at Artscape Sandbox, 301 Adelaide St, Toronto, through Apr. 2nd. This is a play worth seeing.