As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently noted, artists do love to have it both ways.
Dowd was referring to the way filmmakers will sell movies like Argo and Lincoln as historically authentic, but then, as soon an error of fact is pointed out, retreat behind the shield of creative license.
It’s the same thing when it comes to questions surrounding the power of art. Theatremakers, painters and musicians will earnestly declare that a play, painting or song can change a life or the world. And yet, as soon as anyone suggests that, say, a first-person shooter like Call of Duty or a Marilyn Manson album, might alter an individual for the worse, they cheekily head for the hills shouting artistic freedom.
And Slowly Beauty…, a collective creation from Québec City’s Théâtre Niveau Parking translated into English by Maureen Labonté, is the latest play to unambiguously extol the transformative power of theatre. It is tremendously sentimental, even condescending, about art and life, but the slowly unspooled beauty of director Michael Shamata’s production is nevertheless deeply moving.
Mr. Mann is 48-year-old manager working for a nebulous government bureaucracy, a modern, Québecois everyman who is “perceptive, albeit average” in the words of Tarragon Theatre’s tellingly patronizing press release about the show.
Dennis Fitzgerald – an extremely sympathetic actor with a halting, emotional delivery that verges on the Shatneresque – plays Mann, while the five others in the cast swirl around him as Mann’s colleagues, family members and strangers he encounters on his commute.
And Slowly Beauty… begins with Mann in an allegorical frame of mind, putting on his suit. “A man gets ready to go to work,” he says, unhappily tying his tie as if it were a noose. What follows is framed as typical day in his life – an interminable committee meeting full of business bafflegab, petty squabbles with his wife and two kids – followed by a atypical evening. Mann has won tickets to Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters in an office raffle – and his trip to the theatre affects him in unexpected ways.
Awoken from his daze by the characters’ questions surrounding the meaning of life, Mann begins to wonder about the circumstances of his. Masha’s conversation with the Baron Tuzenbach about migratory birds and snowflakes replays in his head and he begins to see everything around him – from the maple trees outside a hospital widow to a hideous shirt his son gave him – through a different lens. This effect is neatly conjured in Shamata’s dreamlike production on a see-through set designed by John Ferguson.
Whenever Mann tries to communicate how Three Sisters has affected him to others, however, he is invariably slapped down. His wife Claudette (Caroline Gillis) tells him that it sounds boring, while a young bookstore employee (Shawn Ahmed) tells him that Chekhov’s plays are hopelessly bourgeois.
These are, naturally, criticisms that could be levelled against And Slowly Beauty… itself. The plot concerns a cliché mid-life crisis, while the characters are all cookie cutter – from Mann’s busy, realtor wife to a the sympathetic waitress he crushes on. There are occasional nods towards serious societal ills that exist outside Mann’s middle-class malaise – homelessness, domestic violence or mental illness – but they are heavily aestheticised, even romanticized.
Nevertheless, Shamata’s production, filled with keenly observed and carefully choreographed performances, sneaks up on you. Its long, pointless stretches are so on purpose – aiming to show the beauty in banality. When this succeeds, it delivers an emotional wallow – particularly in a late-play interaction between Mann and his daughter Nadine (played by a lovely Celine Stubel).
Can I have it both ways in my opinion about this play? I found it alternatively engaging and dull, endearing and manipulative, insightful and hopelessly naive.