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STRANGERS, BABIES
By Linda McLean
Directed by Paul Lampert
A Theatre Panik Production at the Artscape Sandbox, May 12-28, 2017

David Schurmann (Duncan) and Niki Landau (May) (photo: Neil Silcox)

Paul Lampert’s production is designed as five “exhibits” designed by Michael Gianfrancesco as if these were art installations with actors in their own private spaces. Only one of the exhibits is completely enclosed like a blue box with a door. The others are either completely open or can be easily accessed by an ambulatory audience that is supposed to be witnesses to an unfolding elliptical drama with hard edges and a nervous rhythm. In one instance, there is an old man asleep in a hospice bed; in another a middle-aged husband is engrossed in a newspaper crossword or puzzle, his coffee at hand; in a third, a grizzled young man on park bench picks at his stained fingers with a pen-knife; in a fourth, a man nattily dressed in suit and tie begins undressing in a hotel bed when he is not absorbed by his cell phone; and in a fifth, a young man, armed with a clipboard, sometimes makes stabbing motions with his pen. These installations purport mystery or, at least, something very unsettling, but this impression is somewhat contradicted by the rather pristine colours in each space: white for the man and wife, taupe or grey for the bedroom; blue for the social worker; green and some autumnal colours for the park.

The single character who enters each installation to further the narrative is Dan’s wife (May) with evident neurotic issues. At first, in her flat, she is mightily distressed at seeing a baby finch with a broken wing. Next, she is nervously eager for a masochistic sexual experience in a hotel with a male stranger (Roy) she has evidently met online; she suffers violently vituperative attacks by her cancer-ridden father (Duncan) in a hospice; then she is subjected to her brother Denis’s emotional onslaught in the park, where the dialogue suggests something criminal in their past; finally, part of her mystery is uncovered in the final scene with the social worker (Abel) who is bent on investigating the questionable health and care of May’s baby in its crib.

Award-winning Scottish playwright Linda McLean made a big splash with this 90-minute piece that is distinguished by raw poetry and a significant amount of subtext that cannot be played full out with explicit emotionality. The very structure and texture of the patchwork piece requires a skilful negotiation of ellipses, suppressed emotion, and subtle ambiguity—often missing or in short supply in Paul Lampert’s otherwise interesting production that shrewdly emphasizes themes of hurt and pain. The many references to injury, pain, violence, abuse, and death are not simply clinical in intent; they contain veils of significance.

Jeff Lillico (Denis) and Niki Landau (May) (photo: Neil Silcox)

Lampert is noted for strong expressionism, but such abstract metaphor, while visually absorbing, detracts from the text’s vocal power and connotative mystery. For one thing, the segmented design creates aesthetic distance between characters and audience, even in such an intimate space with a small audience capacity, and where setting changes are represented on a television screen or wall. Austar Stewart as Dan, May’s husband, gives a quietly patient performance that does not avoid the patronizing. Many in the cast are experienced versatile performers. David Schurmann as the embittered dying father is vehement to the point of pathology, though he correctly shows the terminally ill man’s personal shame for his daughter’s past, just as Jeff Lillico as May’s caustically contemptuous brother is especially strong and disturbing, though he fails to make the language seem like a stream of consciousness or Pinterian mystery. Richard Lee’s Roy is comically delightful in his awkward attempt to practise SM on a willing but nervous May, though neither he nor Niki Landau’s May makes their scene about erotic asphyxiation as dangerously uncomfortable as it could be. For one thing, Roy has to show rage at his own impotence or premature ejaculation, but Lee manages only short exasperation as if coitus were, indeed, prematurely interrupted.

Which leaves Edmund Stapleton as Abel and Niki Landau as May. Stapleton is a handsome blond young actor who captures the social worker’s seriousness of purpose beneath his bland surface. Landau, on the other hand, is pathologically disturbed throughout, starting on a high note of anxiety that is repeated without deeper exploration of the character’s other psychic anomalies. In other words, Landau rehearses clichés of nervousness rather than exploring fresh semaphores or angles through the character’s silences and uses of space. Surely, the significance of the play’s title could not have escaped the director or his cast. It connotes something minimalist, a story constructed of 15-20 minute vignettes with seemingly disconnected characters (metaphysical strangers) who have vulnerabilities or hurts going back in time, portending absent histories. The characters’ psychological barriers are denoted too plainly, and the ending falls flat in its abruptness, though this is more the playwright’s fault than the director’s. Definitely worth seeing, though it falls short on several counts.

 

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