A review of five plays from the 2018 Master Playwright Festival

By Graeme Houssin

After taking in four of the 11 stage productions from this year’s Master Playwright Festival, the recurring elements of honouree John Patrick Shanley’s plays become more and more apparent.

Shanley’s plays are perhaps most famous for his characters. They are sharp, gritty, self-conscious and, perhaps most notably, lonely. The protagonist of each of these four plays is hungry for something or someone and won’t let anyone get in the way of their pursuit.

He also rarely strays away from his hometown of New York City, particularly the Bronx. The city contributes as much to the story as the characters, giving them an edgy to highlight their rough exteriors.

And Shanley is never afraid to end on a sour note. His last punchy line doesn’t always give the characters a clean resolution or an optimistic future, but neither do they always deserve one.

The four plays reviewed here each contribute a piece to the puzzle of Shanley’s work. Together, they show a glimpse into Shanley’s New York: one that is as complex, restless and full of life as the people that inhabit it.

DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA (The Keep Theatre) – 4 out of 5 stars

“You’re gonna have to fight every motherfucking body in the Bronx, and even it probably won’t get you home.”

An empty dive bar in the Bronx sets the stage for Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, where two incendiary characters run the course from ambivalence to hate to love in just over an hour.

The Keep Theatre masterfully lights this play on fire, ironically in the upper hall of Crescent Fort Rouge United Church. The space is cleverly used with a hidden set piece revealed at the top of the second act.

RobYn Slade and Darren Martens are a power duo as the despicably loveable Roberta and Danny, flourishing most when they lean into one another during the most climactic scenes. It’s that chemistry that pulls the audience through an otherwise thematically repetitive and occasionally dry third act.

THE DREAMER EXAMINES HIS PILLOW (Naked Theatre Productions) – 3 out of 5 stars

“What could be better? It’s like getting to die, and get past death to get to the universe, and then come back.”

The upstairs studio of Dragon Arts Collective is transformed into a trash heap for The Dreamer Examines His Pillow, complete with a multi-level stage in which actors appear and disappear through hidden hatches and bottomless refrigerators.

There, a determined young woman confronts her troubled ex-boyfriend after discovering he’s slept with her sister. When she decides the case is beyond her control, she enlists the help of her similarly troubled father to straighten out the young man.

The innovative stage design and interesting lighting choices more than make up for the occasionally cheesy moment. The cast, while completely committed to the scene, were not immune to overacting at times, creating an uneven pace.

The play’s best moments are its most poetic ones in which the actors move past the boundaries of their scene partners and rhapsodize about their dreams to the audience, performing more in the style of slam poetry than theatre.

DOUBT: A PARABLE (Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre) – 2.5 out of 5 stars

“Innocence can only be wisdom in a world without evil.”

Doubt: A Parable, Shanley’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, departs from his classic dive bar setting and takes the audience to the other side of the Bronx: a 1960s Catholic school run by nuns. The play centres on the doubts and certainties of Sister Aloysius, who will stop at nothing to protect the school’s first black student from what she suspects are advances from the school priest.

The Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre’s production staggers at times under the heavy weight of its script’s legacy (the 2008 film adaptation, Doubt, was nominated for five Oscars). A lack of energy and stale pacing slowed down some of the most intense scenes to an absolute crawl.

Erin Essery as Sister Aloysius is a saving grace for the show, effortlessly balancing the character’s confidence and uncertainty with a steely voice that easily cuts through the Université de Saint-Boniface’s massive theatre.

SAVAGE IN LIMBO (Vault Projects) – 3.5 out of 5 stars

“I think you can’t trust the stars in the sky anymore. You can’t trust anything anymore.”

On a dull Monday evening, five people, trapped in the monotony of their lives and desperate for a way out, meet in a dive bar to clash heads and come to terms with their loneliness.

To mimic the setting and time period of Savage in Limbo, Vault Projects transforms Fools + Horses into an 80s daydream, complete with neon bar lights and blue eyeshadow. The audience is as much a part of the show as the actors, playing the role of bar patrons for the characters to shout at or preach to.

Unfortunately, the play falls flat by the end, like with Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, falling into a pattern of repeated lines and reiterated ideas.

Ntara Curry is a standout as the vulnerable misfit April, stealing the spotlight with every line. Ady Kay is also particularly sensational in a genderbent role as tough guy Tony Aronica.

Select ShanleyFest plays and readings continue to run until Feb. 18. To see show listings and purchase tickets, visit http://royalmtc.ca/mpf.