Wait a second, how is Weyni Mengesha not in charge of all the theatres yet?
Mengesha is the Toronto director who helped shape the most successful Canadian play of the noughties (Da Kink In My Hair), then was behind the scenes of what’s shaping up to be the most successful Canadian play of this decade (Kim’s Convenience). She’s proved adept with pre-existing plays, too, at the Tarragon Theatre and Soulpepper. And she’s still in her 30s.
You’d think a board of directors in Toronto might say: “Hey, here’s a talented director who knows both how to reflect the diversity of the country we live in today on the stage and excite a wide audience for new work. Let’s give her the keys.”
While we wait for that day, Mengesha remains an artistic nomad – and, right now at her part-time home at the Tarragon, she’s currently hitting it out of the park once more with Lungs. This is a new British play by Duncan Macmillan that one could easily imagine tripping and drowning in its own navel in a less carefully calibrated production.
Lesley Faulkner and Brendan Gall star as a thirtysomething couple – identified only in the program by the letters W and M; already my teeth were on edge – deciding whether or not to have a baby.
In fact, it’s M, a musician, who first raises the question while the two are waiting in the check-out line at IKEA. This causes W, a PhD student nearing completion, to have a freak-out and their Expedits to remain unpurchased at the counter. “It’s like you punched me in the face and you asked me to do a math problem,” she says later in the parking lot, having calmed down with a cigarette – though only down to her regular level of anxiety.
Over the course of weeks, M and W have an on-and-off conversation about whether they should bring a child into a world that’s suffering from environmental degradation and overpopulation. Or whether maybe it’s exactly a pair of progressives like them, cyclists and recyclers, who should be bringing a child into this world, a child who, raised with the right values, might make a difference.
Lungs was heralded in England by one critic for giving “voice to a generation for whom uncertainty is a way of life.” Perhaps, but it seems to me as much about a generation for whom the political never moves beyond the personal, one that mistakes self-absorption for worldliness.
Macmillan’s script is as critical of its protagonists as it is affectionate toward them, however, and it alternatives between very funny, unfiltered, Judd Apatow-style comedy and unexpectedly poignant and thoughtful moments.
While the plotting is a little paint-by-numbers, Lungs is distinct in style; it is meant to be performed without any breaks between scenes, or any lighting cues or sounds to signal a shift of place or time of the action. In short, M and W’s entire relationship plays out as one 70-minute conversation. We don’t see the IKEA customers W says are staring at them, nor do we even see them miming shopping; we puzzle it all out in our imaginations.
This may sound anti-theatrical, but it’s quite exhilarating to watch, requiring a constantly engaged level of performance that is near-Olympian. Both actors rise to challenge: Faulkner is extraordinarily funny when she goes off on long tangents that could easily be tiresome; and when the script calls for emotional depths, she plunges with panache. Gall, meanwhile, is marvellous in a role that calls for endless shades of silence.
These two performers move about in a brown wood-panelled box designed by Ken MacKenzie, a nutshell that contains the universe. The movements here are heavy with significance; the pacing and tone is perfectly pitched throughout. Indeed, the play is so well-directed, you won’t even think it has been directed. Maybe that’s why Mengesha isn’t running everything yet; she lets other artists bask in the light she shines on a work.
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