Finally, Factory Theatre is back rolling plays off the assembly line. The machinery fell silent this fall because of an acrimonious dispute over who owned the means of production – that is, an artist boycott that followed the board’s inelegant firing of founding artistic director Ken Gass.
It’s difficult to forget that offstage drama while watching Every Letter Counts, though. Factory’s interim artistic co-director, Nina Lee Aquino, is the playwright and star, while the other half of the temporary leadership, Nigel Shawn Williams, is the director.
Every Letter Counts is not a great audition piece if these two artists – better known as a director and an actor, respectively – have designs on the permanent job.
Though dealing with political turmoil in the Philippines, Aquino’s play is intensely personal. Her uncle was Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino, a Filipino senator who helped to lead the opposition to the Marcos regime in the 1970s. He was assassinated upon returning from exile in 1983, in a Manila airport now named after him.
In Every Letter Counts, Bunny – that’s Aquino, playing herself – visits a museum dedicated to her uncle’s legacy and recalls in a series of flashbacks several days they spent playing Scrabble before he took that fateful trip back to the Philippines.
Ninoy imparts to the six-year-old Bunny a love of words and, in a series of lessons that are Orwell lite, the importance of using them correctly in politics. An alternative title might be Everything I Need to Know About Standing Up to Dictators, I Learned from Scrabble.
Playing Ninoy, Jon de Leon is wonderful. He’s very charismatic, though you see his flaws too – a love of the sound of his own voice and an only semi-hidden desire for martyrdom. De Leon’s performance coalesces in a confidently off-key performance of Frank Sinatra’s My Way.
Aquino has a harder time writing material for herself, and an ever harder time playing what she has written. Her Bunny stalks the stage with the same angry facial expression throughout, occasionally throwing around Scrabble tiles for emphasis. She really runs the gamut of emotions from A to B, to borrow a fitting line from Dorothy Parker.
And yet there’s an appeal to these family flashbacks that is completely missing in the rest of this muddled play.
Aquino’s attempts to summarize the politics of the time results in a succession of dry, quasi-documentary scenes featuring Ninoy and president Ferdinand Marcos (Earl Pastko) delivering speeches. The two powerful adversaries’ encounters in a jail cell are more enticing, but for some reason Bunny intrudes in these – hovering around, fist clenched, repeating lines for emphasis. There’s a framing device involving the grown-up Bunny battling some sort of illness that is never properly explained, but it seems entirely beside the point anyway.
Director Nigel Shawn Williams’s production is too enamoured of its sound and projection design, which features a panelled wall that turns into a Scrabble board and lots of dreamy offstage voices. Meanwhile, he neglects more prosaic concerns, such as making sure Aquino isn’t standing behind a pillar with nothing to do for the first few minutes of the play.
Every Letter Counts was programmed by Gass before his ousting, so it’s more of an example of continuity rather than change. Indeed, there is usually one muddled play a season that you simply scratch your head as to how on earth it got programmed.
Truth is, while Factory has been home to many fantastic shows in recent years, it has also suffered from an overarching malaise due to an outdated artistic mission. The theatre’s foundational idea of being “the home of the Canadian playwright” is a relic of the 1970s; other similar theatres set up at that nationalistic time in Toronto and elsewhere have evolved, but Factory has felt artistically stuck.
Every Letter Counts is a perfect example of the perils of believing the value of a play or production is to be found in the identity of its creators.