Sometimes I’m not at all convinced that theatre creators even want audiences to come see their shows.
How to explain why Ron Pederson and Daniela Vlaskalic have named their new company the Theatre Department – bland, forgettable and ungoogleable even if you do remember it? And for that matter, why would Edmonton playwright Stewart Lemoine call a play Pith! – a smug word, smarmily punctuated – unless he wanted it to be written off?
Every now and then, however, one must learn anew not to judge things by their titles. The Theatre Department’s production of Pith!, a 1997 script belatedly having its Toronto debut, is an utterly charming little comedy, with an undertow of sadness, that demonstrates the power of positive thinking.
We’re in Providence, R.I., in the summer of 1931 – or, at least, how one might imagine that setting raised on a diet of American movies. Pederson, best known in these parts for his work with the improvisers at the National Theatre of the World, stars as a sailor by the name of Jack Vail, who, on shore leave, makes a beeline for the nearest Presbyterian church, craving “the society of ladies and gentlemen together and the eloquent communication, which takes place in situations of moral constraint.”
While eating bumbleberry pie after the service, Vail learns the sad situation of a local congregant named Mrs. Virginia Tilford (Daniela Vlaskalic) from her housekeeper Miss Nancy Kimble (Amy Matysio).
Ten years ago, Mr. Tilford departed in search of a silver mine in South America – and never returned. Mrs. Tilford has since been stuck in stasis because of hope that he might eventually turn up – “a different kind of hope,” says Miss Kimble, to the uplifting kind she finds sitting in a pew on Sunday.
Jack Vail’s mission, should he choose to accept it, is to extinguish this corrosive hope. He turns out to be not so much a sailor, as an amateur improvisor – and, with the help of Miss Kimble, connives to take Mrs. Tilford on a theatrical trip to South America in search of her husband without ever leaving her living room. In a series of imaginings seemingly inspired from boy’s adventure books, he conjures exotic encounters with sleazy Latin fortune hunters, obnoxious Swedish botanists and tiny, poison dart-shooting “savages.” (Lemoine’s script is free of postcolonial political correctness, for better or for worse.)
Lemoine is the quintessential writer to emerge from Canada’s Fringe Festival movement, writing his first script for the very first Edmonton Fringe in 1982 – and later moving his Teatro La Quindicina and his screwball, film-inspired oeuvre into residence into the Varscona Theatre. With the Theatre Department, former Albertans Pederson and Vlaskalic are endeavouring to bring his cult east to Toronto.
In Lemoine’s plays, the critic Anne Nothof has observed, “The creative imagination is a means by which fantasies become psychological realities.” Pith! is a perfect example – Jack Vail shows Mrs. Tilford how the best way to change your situation is to fake it until you make it, or perform until you reform. Once you in the audience decide to go along with the play’s oversimplified situation, your serotonin levels may rise too as the characters embark on silly and fantastic adventures conjured only with four chairs and a Victrola. All three actors create loveable and well-executed live-action cartoons, with Matysio’s depiction of the short-sighted secretarial Nancy being particularly divine.
The Teatro Trilogy, a collection of Lemoine’s plays that includes Pith!, is prefaced by a quote from Our Town playwright Thornton Wilder about his attempts to recapture the spirit of play – “not the play of youth, which is games [aggression under the restraint of rules], but the play of childhood, which is all imagination, which improvises.” As with Wilder’s oeuvre, Pith! could easily be written off as Pollyannish were it not for the mournfulness that motivates its aw-shucks action.
Director Ron Jenkins’s energetically engineered production might have taken more time to highlight that undercurrent; the script might have left more room for it to show, too; and Pederson, as the star, could have taken a few deep breaths in his manic performance. But, nevertheless, Pith! is an endearing evening if you let go.
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