On the opening night of Sky Gilbert's The Situationists at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, the critics were asked not to divulge the final five minutes of the play - a plot twist meant to put into practice the theories expounded in the previous 115 minutes.
Not being one to spoil the party - even a dull party - I won't reveal what that twist is. But I will say that it comes off less like a cunning coup de théâtre and more like a desperate bid to inject some tension into an otherwise plodding and largely pointless comedy.
The Situationists referred to in the title are the Situationist International, a postwar European movement that was dedicated to challenging the passive spectator culture of Western consumerist society by creating provocative "situations." The most famous situation to its credit was the Paris student uprising of May, 1968, whose protesters were apparently influenced by Situationist theory.
The Situationists are also the play's three characters, a trio of present-day would-be activists inspired by the long-defunct movement. Jacques (Gavin Crawford) is a smug, humourless French professor who is plotting to create a "situation" with the help of his adoring student disciple, Lise (Haley McGee). Lise has convinced Jacques that they need to recruit a third conspirator, disillusioned law student Evon (Gil Garratt), ostensibly to advise them on any potential legal problems.
Evon is an angry young anarchist who simultaneously scorns these stuffy academics playing at revolution and finds himself intrigued with their Situationist ideas. He's also an admitted horn dog who wants to bring sex into any situation they propose. Before long, he's turned the tables on Jacques and Lise, forcing them to confront their own hypocrisies and sexual repression.
Gilbert may have intended The Situationists to be a leftist companion piece to The Emotionalists, his 2000 drama about right-wing philosopher Ayn Rand, which received a revival at last year's SummerWorks festival. Both plays are concerned with intellectual hypocrisy, but whereas The Emotionalists dealt with complex historical figures, The Situationists offers us only silly cartoons.
Jacques is some bizarre parody of a Left Bank philosopher, played by Crawford with the most outrageous French accent this side of Peter Sellers's Inspector Clouseau. (At times it's also so impenetrable that you wish the show had surtitles.) Bespectacled, bun-wearing Lise appears to be a variant on the sexy librarian - the sexy grad student - and McGee endows her with weird exaggerated movements that suggest the other influential Frenchman in her life is Marcel Marceau.
Garratt's Evon, the studly provocateur, turns out to be merely a mouthpiece for Gilbert, reeling off the playwright's putatively controversial observations about political correctness, AIDS, recycling and Internet porn. At one point, the play takes a dig at the cerebral theatre of George Bernard Shaw, but at least Shaw put his own opinions into the mouths of entertaining characters. Evon is a raging non-entity.
Then again, the whole play has an anonymous feel to it. Gilbert doesn't even indicate where the action is taking place, and Andy Moro's set, a stark white room, offers no clues. Are we on a university campus? In a hotel suite in Paris? In the second act, we're surprised to learn we're in Canada, and then only when the Situationists begin discussing a possible infiltration of the Conservative or Liberal parties. This allows Gilbert to make some nasty cracks about the latter. I guess a gay playwright-cum-drag-queen maligning Michael Ignatieff and the Trudeau boys instead of social conservative Stephen Harper is also meant to be provocative.
Directing his own work, Gilbert can't decide if it's a play of ideas, a diatribe or a farce. And he doesn't seem to have given his actors much guidance, either. Crawford, of This Hour Has 22 Minutes fame, spends two hours playing a character that would be good for maybe two laughs in a comedy sketch. McGee, so riveting earlier this season in her solo show Oh My Irma, is unimpressive. Garratt's Evon is grating, even when he's stripped down for a couple of scenes involving sadomasochistic acts and masturbation.
In his long career, Gilbert has often been something of a Situationist himself, staging daring theatrical situations to shake audiences out of their apathy. With this misfired effort, though, he only leaves you shaking your head.
- Written and directed by Sky Gilbert
- Starring Gavin Crawford, Gil Garratt and Haley McGee
- Produced by the Cabaret Company
- At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto until April 24.
Special to The Globe and Mail