Photo Credit: Mat Simpson
May 16 to 26, 2012
Listen to my review on Calgary Eyeopener on Friday May 18th .
The story I heard goes something like this. Ghost River Theatre had space booked at the Pumphouse Theatre mid-May, but ended up not having a show to produce for that time. Rather than give up the booking, they decided to present a solo show they admired from Edmonton’s Surreal SoReal Theatre called Big Shot written and performed by Jon Lachlan Stewart.
Good for them, I say! As much as I love seeing local theatre here in Calgary, I will always jump at the chance to see something from farther afield if for no other reason than to take the theatrical temperature of companies outside our city.
Big Shot, which has played nine cities thus far, came with rave reviews from the critics and had me very eager to see it. Perhaps I should have tempered my anticipation somewhat. Like many solo shows, Big Shot is really all about an outstanding performance tackling a less than satisfying tale.
The play tells the story of a shooting incident on board a Vancouver Skytrain as seen through the eyes of an eight year old boy. To him, the shooting is a terribly exciting thing to witness, similar to all the action movies he’s totally obsessed with. Something to break the monotony of his everyday boring and not very happy life. This is how he introduces the story to us – like an action movie script with a full cast.
There are 6 different characters involved directly and indirectly with the shooting and we get to meet and watch each of them individually as they act out their part in the events that led up to the incident. This is a solo show, so obviously all the parts fall to Stewart who in addition to the little boy, plays the boy’s depressed mother, his absent father who is himself a wanna-be movie maker, a recovering heroin addict, an old Japanese man, and a Skytrain cop. Apparently many of these characters were inspired by real people Stewart knew or came across when he was living in Vancouver right near the infamous East Hasting area.
The tricky part in this play is that each character, when telling their backstories, how they came to be on the train and what role they played in the shooting, is only acting out their side of the conversation and the action. So it’s a bit confusing at first because you really don’t get the full picture of what is transpiring. But as the play progresses, the stories build on each other and start to layer and connect and eventually come together to create a comprehensive narrative. But to get there, you have to be prepared to go through a bit of muddy storytelling and plot uncertainty.
What isn’t uncertain however is Stewart’s performance. There is no doubt this play is a showpiece for his immense talent. His performance, with its energy and variety and nuance is really quite stunning. The six characters Stewart plays are totally different in age, gender and circumstance and with nothing more than simply changing his body language and facial expressions he truly becomes the heroin addict or the old Japanese man or the despondent woman. Set-wise, there are no props in this show for Stewart to rely on, save a screen at the back of the stark stage for very occasional projections, nor are there any costumes. Dressed simply in black jeans and a black T-shirt, Stewart manages to take us beyond his physicality and wonderfully evoke these characters in a performance that is really quite exceptional.
The writing however, I’m less enthused about. Some of the characters were utterly fascinating. The heroin addict and the Japanese man’s narratives in particular were thoroughly compelling and even gut-wrenching at times. But other characters I felt were a little sloppy in development or long-winded in delivery. It was only a 75 minute one-act play, but it felt like it went on too long and lost some of the momentum that I’m certain a good 10 minute edit could have fixed.
The surprise twist at the end which I won’t spoil, but frankly you’ll see coming a mile away, ties things up so neatly together with such a schematic coincidence that it can’t help but cheapen the story. As far as the theme of the play – which is really about urban violence and our desensitization to it – I get that Stewart was trying to illustrate this by pitching a violent act as a kind of action movie script and his writing does a decent job of that. The writing also does a decent job of making sure the play isn’t a total downer. Despite the heady subject there are actually some breaks for laughter in the script.
But as far as chiming in with raves – well for Stewart’s performance I’ll absolutely say yes to that. It’s a bravura moment and it was a pleasure to watch. For the play itself, I have mixed feelings. Parts I really liked, parts I thought needed work and parts that I thought could be taken out completely. There is no doubt this is not a play for everyone as its alternative and disturbing in the extreme at times and often hard to follow. While generally I really like those kinds of plays, this one just didn’t hit all the marks I would have liked it to. So note to my laudatory colleagues in Edmonton and Winnipeg, I guess I’m the dissenting voice on this one.
For the guys and the girls – None of the characters are particularly likeable. That’s kind of the point. And the story lumbers at times. But Stewart’s performance is fantastic and the good moments are very good. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – The great performance won’t make up for what you won’t like about the play. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – In spite of the flaws, this is a daring piece of theatre that succeeds as often as it misses. Even if you don’t like the whole, you will be interested in the parts. SEE IT.