Friday, June 13, 2008

Theatre Review: Apple (Vern Thiessen)

Thiessen, Vern Apple (2006)

We saw this play in Elliot Lake, played by the Gateway Players of North Bay, offered as a 2007 Quonta entry.

The adjudicator's remarks were a model of constructive criticism. He was able to lead the production team into recognising their mistakes, or questioning their choices, without in the least putting them down. His remarks about acting were entertaining and instructive. He was far, far kinder than I would have been – he obviously loves theatre, and theatre people, and that love was contagious. By and large, the adjudication rescued a rather dreary evening.

The Gateway Players did a valiant job, and during the adjudication explained why they thought it was a good idea to interrupt the play with frequent blackouts for scene changes, why the lighting was too dim, why the set was a mix of abstract and realistic scenery. One thing the adjudicator did not ask was why the director thought that the actors should speak their lines in very measured, and often obviously portentous tones. The actors worked hard, and did a very good job with a very thin script. The director used music (mostly songs by Peter Gabriel) to bridge the scene changes and provide atmosphere. These would have worked better if we had not been distracted by the busyness of the stage hands.

Overall the production was a good deal less than the sum of its parts. I agreed with all adjudicator's judgments except one: he claimed this was a brilliantly written play, but I think the script was bloody awful.

It seems Thiessen has a reputation for brilliance: is a laudatory review of the Toronto premiere of this play. But if this play is evidence of Thiessen's normal standard, his reputation is undeserved. The characters are cardboard, possessing only enough features to propel the plot, which reminds me of a TV movie of the kind made to provide a "vehicle" for a fading star.

Oh, yeah, the plot: Dysfunctional marriage between bland husband Andy and driven real-estate-agent wife Evelyn. Husband has been fired from his government job, gets no sympathy from bitchy Wife, and offers none in return when she complains about her job. He meets medical student Samantha in the park, has affair with her – she has an orgasm the first time they're together. Wow! Student has no goals in life, just wants to enjoy the moment. Wife is engaged to sell Student's condo (inherited from her mother). Neither knows they have a man in common. Then Wife develops breast cancer. Husband now has a full-time job: to care for Wife. The intern handling her case for the specialist is – the Student! Husband breaks off affair. Husband and Wife reconcile (and have orgasmic sex on stage to prove it.) Wife dies. Husband and Student meet in park again, she wants to get back together with him. He refuses. The End.

But why should we care for these people? Just because someone has lost a job or develops a fatal disease is not enough reason to feel any more than an abstract compassion for them. We have to believe their lives matter to them, but how can we do so when so little of their lives is revealed? I suppose the wife's acceptance of her mortality, her reconciliation with her husband, his devoting himself to her and giving up the sexy student, are all intended to show how the smell of death can be morally therapeutic. Or something like that. There are repeated references to living in the moment. The characters remark on the beauty of the park, the sunlight, the air, in identical phrases, etc and so on and so forth. The adjudicator claims the script was written like a piece of music, by which he presumably had these repeated motifs and their variations in mind. I found the language flat and uninteresting – the repeated references to the beauty of the park became irritating to me. "Beauty" is a word that fails to convince me.

The characters are flat, they engaged neither my interest nor my sympathy, despite the actors' skill. For example, the husband claims to have loved his government job, but we never know why – beyond making that claim, he says nothing about it. So on what grounds should I believe that he loved his job?

Thiessen has a knack for using incomplete phrases and sentences to express social awkwardness, but that has limited use in a play that supposedly explores how and why people make the choices they must make. He also suffers from the regrettably wide-spread notion that scattering fuck yous about makes dialogue more realistic, since such strong words must express rage, mustn't they? Well, no, actually. The phrase worked best when Andy and Evelyn used it good-naturedly to express affection.

Thiessen has another gimmick: at intervals, the student appears dressed in doctor's whites, and lectures about the progress of cancer. I suppose the technical, medical language is intended to comment on the action, and to heighten the reality and emphasise the emotion of the dialogue. Unfortunately, Thiessen didn't bother to get the facts right - the student tells us that cancer "invades" the cells, which is an elementary error. It put me off, so I was not disposed to look kindly on the superficial characterisation, the sophomoric assumption that a life-threatening situation is in itself enough to evoke pity and terror, and the attempt to heighten realism by using foul language and explicit sex. There were quite a few funny bits, but neither the script nor the direction indicated that they were intended as such.