September 25 – 29, 2012
Theatre Junction Studio
I had initially decided against seeing and reviewing Pink Sugar. Not because the play didn’t interest me, but because my schedule only allowed for one play this week and a highly recommended production of The Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet won that slot. Decision made, end of story. Or so I thought.
But yesterday I got an email message from Pink Sugar’s playwright urging me to reconsider my choice:
“Come See Pink Sugar! I remember reading a review from you here where you were wishing that a show that dealt with human trafficking would have dug in a bit deeper…. Pink Sugar is really an attempt to do this. Shakespeare is dead and unlikely to benefit from the critical exchange. Seriously, if you can squeeze it in would love to hear your thoughts.
Natalie Meisner (the writer)”
Apart from making me laugh, Ms. Meisner’s comments cleverly threw my own theatre criticism back at me. She was right; I had been disappointed by a recent human trafficking play and was looking for a better treatment of the subject. So the claim that her story was superior and the invitation to see and provide feedback was just too tempting. Squeeze it in I did.
Meisner was certainly right, Pink Sugar does dig deeper and provide the more complex and nuanced examination of human trafficking that I was hoping for. It does this however through a deeply uneven narrative that unnecessarily mixes genres, relies at times on gimmick and doesn’t know when to end.
The story is told through a series of four interwoven monologues that occasionally cross paths to form two-character dialogue. Spencer is a Canadian 20-something who takes a post-graduation trip to a World Cup match in a foreign country that either I failed to catch or wasn’t mentioned. At the match he spots Elan, an enticing Moldavian girl who quickly seduces him and whisks him away to countless countries under the haze of the drugs she feeds him in order to eventually steal his kidney. Providing the counterbalance to this story is Max, a 40-something looser in life dialysis patient driven by desperation and lack of other options to illegally purchase a new kidney. Sylvie, a high stakes dealer in all things illegal from weapons to drugs to people to people’s parts provides the means for Max’s purchase.
All four characters populate the stage throughout the play as they each take turns telling their part in the organ trafficking and the backstory of how they came to be involved. It could have been a smart and powerful way to get at this intricate, nefarious and emotional issue. And in the case of three of the characters it was.
Sylvia Niederberger as Elan not only nailed her accent with precision and authenticity, her haunting delivery of a woman so broken by psychological and physical trauma and terror was flawless. Meisner’s writing of this character as a villain/victim beautifully highlighted shades of gray, the grit of the issue and provided some hard truths to absorb.
Laryssa Yanchak as Sylvie, the hard as nails contraband dealer, also delivered a strong performance and pulled as much believability out of this over the top role as she could. In another actor’s hands Sylvie could have been dominatrix-like or even campy, but Yanchak found the subtleties in Meisner’s not too subtle writing of this character and rounded just enough edges to make her darkly and disturbingly compelling.
But for me, the standout was Paul Sutherland as Max. His ability to simultaneously play his character’s backstory and present day reality in a quiet elegant whirlwind of tension and emotion was magic to behold. Whether playing his character drunk or scared or bitter, Sutherland moved effortlessly inside Max and presented us with a performance that penetrated far beyond the role he was playing.
Unfortunately when it came to Spencer, things fell apart on all levels. Far from the interesting yet troubled realities of his co-characters, Spencer is one-dimensional, weirdly sarcastic and without authentic motivation. I didn’t believe his instant love for Elan or his somewhat comedic suffering post-surgery and I had to hold back gags when despite everything he still says he wants Elan back. Making matters worse was Kyall Rakoz’s performance. William Shaterner-esque in his cadence, Rakoz came across as smarmy and cardboard as though he himself didn’t believe the lines he was delivering.
If Meisner was trying to infuse some levity and dark humour with Spencer’s character, she blew the flippancy top off with Spencer’s kidney. Projected on a screen as a crudely drawn cartoon character, the animated kidney shows up three times throughout the show to sling dark jokes about the organ trade and the value we place on life. I’m the first person to applaud black humour, but in this case, the kidney wasn’t all that funny or interesting and it felt like I was watching Meisner’s conceit rather than an integral part of the performance. More importantly, the jarring juxtaposition of the serious and disturbing narrative of Elan, Sylvie and Max against the barely amusing kidney cartoon felt extremely disjointed. Meisner would have been far wiser to make the kidney a more sinister and dark character and leave the gimmicky yuks for another time.
Directed with economy that was simple yet visually interesting, Jason Mehmel does a nice job allowing each character room to tell their stories. But even his sure-footed staging can’t stop the play from rambling at the end, way overshooting the high note it could have gone out on. Instead we get silly resolutions to some characters and just too much dialogue from others. This is too bad as there was a moment about ten minutes from the close of the play where Max calls for one last drink that I think would have been a superb and dramatic final line.
I think given time I will mostly remember the good of this production due to the fantastic performances of three talented actors and some intelligent writing by Meisner. But for now I can’t help feeling the frustration of seeing another yet play about human trafficking that didn’t hit the mark.
For the guys and girls – Some very good insights into the issue of human and organ trafficking delivered by some excellent performers. But the play itself is lacking the weight of its subject. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – Way too alternative and nonlinear for your liking. Neither successfully serious nor laughably funny, this play will lose you right from the start. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – What works well, works really well and the parts that don’t are bearable. Especially when you consider Sutherland’s outstanding performance. MAYBE SEE IT