There are new plays that fail from an excess of ambition, and others that flop because they play it too safe. Then, there are those promising new plays undercut in production by bad direction or miscasting or a set designer gone mad after too much exposure to paint fumes.
On the whole, it’s hard to write a brand-new work and get it to the stage in decent shape – and I’m generally sympathetic when things go awry. But then there are dramatic scripts that are such obvious duds that you wonder how on earth they ever made it to a stage at a professional theatre company.
Factory Theatre has a long tradition of programming at least one of these a season – a tradition that the theatre’s relatively new artistic directors Nigel Shawn Williams and Nina Lee Aquino seem to be carrying forward.
6 Essential Questions is poet Priscila Uppal’s first play, a companion piece to her 2013 memoir Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother.
In that book, Uppal described travelling to Brazil as an adult to meet the mother who had abandoned her, her brother and her quadriplegic father 20 years earlier in Ottawa. Indeed, her mother had not only disappeared, but drained the family bank accounts on her way out of the country.
A compelling story that raises essential questions about the limits of reunion and redemption, but the parallel universe of Uppal’s play doesn’t get around to any of these until it’s too late, eschewing narrative clarity for non-linear fantasy.
In Uppal’s hazily imagined dreamscape, Renata (Mina James) is her stand-in – a Canadian doctor whose mother also ran away to Brazil after an accident left her father disabled. It takes a while for even the basic facts to be firmly established, however. The play opens with a confusing sequence in which Renata departs Canada after her purse sings to her. She is greeted in Rio by Doctor Garbage (an initially charming Richard Zeppieri), a semi-invisible uncle who says outrageous things as he rolls around in a giant trash heap that covers most of the stage.
Elizabeth Saunders gives an energetic but ultimately exhausting performance as Renata’s mother, whose dialogue consists of casual insults and a list of the things she likes best about herself. Rounding out the characters is Grandmother, played by Maggie Huculak with some semblance of restraint, hovering on the edge of the action, and on the edge of death.
For the first 45 minutes or so of this one-act play, we don’t know enough about Renata to care about her journey, while the goals of that journey (and even if that journey is actually taking place) are unclear. James spends the play walking around talking to what may be figments of her imagination, spouting poetic dialogue while wearing her best confused Keanu Reeves face.
Leah Cherniak, former artistic director of Theatre Columbus, has directed the piece in a style that draws on her clowning background – adding an extra element of looseness to a production that desperately needs something firm for the audience to hang onto.
Eventually, some semblance of story emerges – and the last 10 minutes of the show seem to have a point: “Some dreams are meant to die.”
But 6 Essential Questions is not a drama. It’s not surprising that Uppal – a creative-writing professor at York University whose memoir was well-reviewed – might write such an unstructured mess in her first attempt at the form. What’s amazing is that the powers that be at Factory put it on their main stage; and in a reduced season of four plays, it’s a serious misstep for an organization attempting to rebuild.
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