by Stuart Ross
Theatre New Brunswick
October 18-20, 2007
For people who've cared about theatre in this area, and have thus cared about Theatre New Brunswick since Walter Learning launched the quixotic venture almost four decades ago, opening nights for the past few years have been rather like visits to the bedside of a loved one. Each time, you hope you'll see signs of recovery, and you look anxiously for positive evidence, listen for the voice to strengthen, for the old jokes and joie de vivre to make an appearance, hoping against hope that this time of awakening, this regaining of consciousness, will offer the signal that your old friend is on the mend. Maybe soon you'll be in a position to stop wondering whether it's okay to tell her she's wrong about something, or has made a dumb choice -- whether you can once again treat her as a resilient, valuable, trusting friend.
And, of course, you can't help thinking about the old days, when she was strong and when mistakes didn't run the risk of being fatal. In the case of TNB, those were the days when shows ran for a half dozen performances or more in Fredericton and then toured for most of a month, when the occasional turkey didn't run the risk of putting the patient on life support, when you could take a risk like Waiting for Godot or Equus and ride out the storm, knowing you'd stretched and challenged your audience and you could hope that they'd be back with new and deepened expectations the next time.
It should be clear from all that that I'm about to tell my old friend, even though I'm afraid it may not be taken well, that a dumb choice has been made.
Forever Plaid is a fine bit of entertainment, a nice way to spend an evening sipping a kind of postmodern, faux-sentimental nostalgia for the old days when the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Los were shaping the musical ears of a generation that would eventually give rise to the Beach Boys and perhaps the Beatles. In the Theatre New Brunswick production that opened the current season, four young (or youngish) actors -- Trevor Covelli, Aaron Kyte, Michael Lomenda, and Kraig Waye, as the four "Plaids" -- Jinx, Francis, Smudge and Sparky -- sing amazingly well, dance the not especially inspired choreography skillfully, and mug effectively. The audience responds to a repeated -- and very effective -- extortion of feeling through close, passionate harmony, in the service of songs we all either remember vividly or vaguely recognize, depending mainly on our age.
The resources of the Playhouse -- the usual professionally excellent lighting of Chris Saad, a sound system which can be, and usually was, subtle and effective, and the requisite smoke, bubbles, and disco-ball lighting for the grand finale -- did yeoman service. But in the service of what wasn't clear to me. Once you've said that the music -- a kind of parade of slightly hyper-arranged versions of what the program notes called "unforgettable hits" -- was just fine, and at least as entertaining as an evening in front of the TV, you've said pretty much what it seems to me needs to be said.
The premise of the show is that the group, killed in a highway accident (by a "busload of Catholic virgins," one of them notes sardonically, and perhaps a little tastelessly) has, somehow, one last chance to put on the show that they would have put on had the accident not intervened. It is not an especially promising one, and indeed doesn't deliver a whole lot in the way or structure, or motivation, or problems to be solved. The four singers all have individualized schticks -- recurrent bouts of stagefright and nosebleeds here, a pair of thick glasses there -- but they don't develop or have consequences or pose problems that can't be solved by getting into the next verse of a given song. Cleverly, the script positions itself so that anything you might think was dumb can be taken as ironic. For example, off the top one of the characters remarks that "there's so much to be done -- take the dust covers off the microphones." Throughout, the naive ineptness of the performers is meant to disarm us. "Cover for us," one says while they discuss the current crisis. "I've never been good with patter. What'll I say?" "Tell them about . . . stuff."
By the time we've had a fairly lame version of a couple of Beatles songs as they might have been done had du-wop survived the British invasion, and a brilliantly fast but pretty much entirely pointless parody of the Ed Sullivan Show (complete with flashes of José Jimenez and Señor Wences and Tiny Tim -- amazingly, many people in the audience seemed to remember them, and screamed in recognition), it was clear that the point was to keep the show going quickly and entertainingly for ninety minutes. It was not a minute too short.
I hate to say it, but this is not why we'd want to have and support a local theatre company, much less one with hopes of being a provincial theatre flagship (after all, it's called Theatre New Brunswick, not Theatre Fredericton). This four-performance musical review, entertaining and charming as it is, is just the sort of thing that the Playhouse, under the direction of the intrepid Tim Yerxa, is perfectly capable of supplying -- indeed, has been supplying, and to at least as good effect, with its importation of touring shows like last week's Peter Pan or last winter's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged. We should remember, as well, that it was Yerxa and the Playhouse, not TNB, that brought us the memorable Brilliant! from Electric Company Theatre, and No Man's Land, from Rising Tide Theatre.
I submit that what we want from a theatre company is theatre, and the reason we want it is that it's more than entertainment, and more than television. What we want is a venue in which artists with a commitment to their art can surprise us. Perhaps the most disheartening thing about the evening at the Playhouse was the survey tucked into our programs, inviting us (the last artistic director of the company invited us to do this, as well) to express our desires. Would we, they ask, prefer, as a comedy, Noises Off? Mambo Italiano? or "A Norm Foster Comedy"? Would we rather encounter, in the "drama" category, Tuesdays with Morrie (which, incidentally, Theatre Saint John has already scheduled for this spring), or, say, Frankenstein? How about Angels in America, then?
I may be alone in this, but I don't want my theatre to be chosen by a vote, or a popularity contest. As I said in response to Claude Giroux's survey, what I want from a theatre company is to be surprised by a gift I didn't know I wanted.
I'm aware that no theatre company can survive without people in the seats out there, and if they're not there life support is the best we can hope for. I remain unconvinced that you can attract people by giving them what they ask for. In the 500 channel universe, we can get what we ask for sitting on the couch at home with our remote.