A Clean Slate Christmas
December 7 to 10, 2011
Originally produced in 2005 in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and most recently staged at Sage Theatre’s IGNITE! 2010 festival, A Clean Slate Christmas comes to us this time courtesy of Theatre Transit, an emerging artist collective based here in Calgary. In other words actors, writers and stage crew who are just starting out in their chosen professions and flexing their inchoate creative muscles.
I generally enjoy watching these types of performances. Yes, it’s true that the newly minted often make many missteps and theatrical gaffes. But they are the same people who, by virtue of being unburdened with company politics and box-office pressure, are able to take risks and produce plays that are wholly original and challenging rather than the expected and safe. Personally, I would rather watch an imperfect play that pushes conventional theatre boundaries even if it flops on a number of levels than a well-delivered same old-same old.
And it’s this combination of pushing and intriguing yet also failing and disappointing that we get from A Clean Slate Christmas.
The story is simple – Hannah, the daughter in a highly dysfunctional divorced family has been hit on the head rendering her memory-less. The rest of the family, mother Carol, father John, brother Oliver and Oliver’s friend Declan are so immersed in their own unhappiness with themselves and each other that they use the opportunity of a “clean slate” with Hannah to fill her head with their own biased views of family facts and events. Most of which are lies.
The show is promoted as a “pitch black comedy” and here is where things get muddy. I am the first to jump on the “disturb me into laughing” bandwagon, but in this case I wasn’t laughing and I wasn’t fully disturbed enough to ignore the moments of comedy. The humour in the play is supposed to come from the absurd lies that each character tells Hannah who believes everything they say as if she has not only lost her memory, but her BS-meter as well. In their lies, the family use and abuse Hannah’s presence cruelly and this comes off as pathetic rather than funny. Of particular note are the scenes where Oliver tells her that she is adopted and that her mother never really wanted her, the scene where Declan takes advantage and sleeps with her despite his later admission of having a girlfriend, her father telling her that her mother threw out all her possessions when she was in the hospital and her mother spewing all sorts of hateful and biased information about her father under the guise of a good girl chat. And these are just a few of the examples. I suppose the audience, who knows these proclamations are lies, is supposed to find the deception funny especially since it is Hannah who gets the last laugh. But even with her empowerment at the end of the play, I couldn’t shake the feeling of ick I had throughout the majority of the performance. I would have preferred the story-line to have either been funnier as in a Coen brothers treatment of disturbing circumstances (think Fargo) or an exclusively disturbing narrative as in any number of Neil LaBute’s plots (In the Company of Men as a perfect example)
However, while the execution of the plot was unsatisfying, there were many wonderful elements within the production that made this exciting to watch. The standout actor, Carly McKee as Carol, showed great acting chops in that she didn’t seem to be acting at all, but rather speaking as though her lines were as natural to her as her own thoughts. In fairness, this is not her first go at the character as she was part of the IGNITE! cast two years ago. But even if this afforded her more comfort with the role, McKee is a strong performer that I will be happy to watch again on future stages.
The other standout moments came from Director Valmai Goggin’s exquisitely staged scenes where all characters in the cast bombard Hannah with their lies, while at the same time refuting each other’s versions of the truth. Whether it was the parental pull and tug near the start of the story or the full cast pleading to “hang out” close to the end of the play, these scenes were not only superbly acted, but the timing and blocking Goggin imposed made them powerful and incredibly thrilling to watch. A perfect example of original risk-taking paying off handsomely for an emerging theatre company.
No, this was not a perfect play by a long shot. But there were moments of great and successful creativity that I’m very glad I got to see.
For the guys – perhaps you won’t identify with Hannah as much and therefore find her torture funnier than I did. MAYBE SEE IT
For the girls – Yes Hanna gets the last laugh, but the ick factor getting there is hard to bear. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional audience – Probably not the holiday play you had in mind. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – The plot is under-formed and some of the acting is a little stiff but the moments that work, work really well and are intriguing to watch. MAYBE SEE IT