Jamie Konchak and David Patrick Flemming. Photo Credit: Trudie Lee Photography
March 8 – April 6, 2013
Martha Cohen Theatre
Listen to my live review of The Valley on CBE Eyeopener on Thursday, March 22 on
Have you ever had a friend who’s made bad romantic/lifestyle choices? Not once, but again and again and again. More often than not with the same partner. At first you get caught up in the drama of the situation. Almost like a car crash you can’t help but look and breathlessly wait to hear what new crises has befallen them due to their own naïve and somewhat masochistic choices. But eventually the titillation wears off, the constant emotional calamity becomes tiresome and your threshold for empathy then sympathy then even the slightest caring whatsoever evaporates into thin air.
Put this friend on stage in the form of four 19th century historical figures and make your waning friendship the challenge the audience must face as they struggle through the characters’ endless romantically caused disasters and you have Dara Teitel’s new play, the Apology.
This coming of age historical fiction play with overly busy direction by Kate Newby tells the tale of the 18-year-old Frankenstein author Mary Shelley (Jamie Konchak), her poet boyfriend poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (David Patrick Flemming), Mary Shelley’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont (Ava Jane Markus) and the aristocratic poet Lord Byron (David Beazley) as they come together in a decidedly unorthodox polyamorous philosophical pact while living together for a time at Byron’s home in Switzerland.
In what feels like an interminably long first act, we watch these four fall in and out of bed with each other, become jealous, fight, make up, take drugs, bed different partners , get territorial over mates, battle, reconcile and do it all over again. Wash, rinse, repeat. And while watching young, attractive rebellious (famous) characters behaving salaciously is certainly initially entertaining, the baring of flesh and the writhing of bodies becomes quickly pedestrian and dull, especially when peppered with the unrelenting green-eyed monster yelling that accompanies it. It is interesting to note however, that in the performance I saw, which was opening night, Newby decided to greatly tone down the gay love scenes. I’d heard from people who attended preview evenings that the male actors performed together with full frontal nudity, yet the version I saw had them in underwear. Either staging would have been fine in my opinion, yet I couldn’t help but wonder if the many corporate sponsors and VIP’s in the audience had anything to do with the less racy direction. Apparently these are the things one thinks about when being bored by lasciviousness.
The play’s tedium begins to lift near the end of the second act when Mary becomes pregnant and out of competitive spite, Claire makes sure she too is with child via the very disinterested Lord Byron. Suddenly the stakes are higher. No longer is their existence just about the rollercoaster of sex, drugs and emotional upheaval. There are lives on the line as well as careers – Mary has finished Frankenstein and is being lauded in literary circles for her accomplishment. But instead of moving beyond their destructive lifestyles, the patterns continue disastrously into the second act with the group broken up but still playing out similar games with each other from arm’s length. Frankly I had broken off the friendship with the play long before the second act and was therefore unmoved by the slight maturation of the characters (save Byron) and their situations as the play progressed.
I was also unmoved by Teitel’s decision to set the second half of the play in modern times. Mary and the gang go from period dress to present day skinny jeans and cell phones in Act 2, and while I understand this was a metaphor examining the relentlessness of sexual politics regardless of era, I found the design decision twee. More problematic was that Teitel was apparently attempting to explore the feminist side of Shelley’s character and the politics feminists face when pregnancy comes into their lives. While Teitel provides some very nicely written bits of dialogue on this issue, any real intelligent discussion is stomped on by the endless sexcapades that completely drown out these important notions. I just can’t imagine anyone is going to walk away from The Apology thinking it was an interesting examination of feminist struggle.
Yet even with all my disaffection for the plotline and much of the staging, I couldn’t bring myself to truly dislike the play. Credit for this goes partially to Teitel, who manages to give her characters some deliciously smart and funny dialogue amid the tedious scenarios she makes them live out. Mary’s discussion of a woman’s self-coconsciousness during sex, Byron’s bemoaning a man’s right to a little rape fantasy, and Mary’s lawyer Tom (Graham Percy) explaining that a beard is just a series of missed deadlines are some magnificent pieces of writing that kept my ears intrigued even when the rest of me was less enthused.
The acting was the other, much larger reason I found affection for The Apology. While this show was in many ways an ensemble piece, it’s Mary’s role that leads the cast and Jamie Konchak does a superb job vacillating between feminist confidence, youthful insecurity, jealous indignation and vulnerable love. Any fondness I had for Mary was a complete outgrowth of Konchak’s ability to break through the limits of the writing and bring a tender humanness to the role. Flemming’s Percy was also pitch perfect in his range of emotion, resulting in a performance that superseded the dislikeable foppish nature of his character. Markus as Claire took a jealous, whiny, spiteful role and with excellent timing and completely present and exposed emotion turned her into a compelling addition to the action. Lord Byron is described as ‘despicable’ and he certainly is in this play, but it is Beazely’s oily performance and acerbic delivery that makes his character is so cringe-worthy. Finally, Tom may be the only sane, likeable character in the play, but rather than rest on the affable nature of his role, Percy projects an honest decency that is attractive beyond the lines he is given. To say that this was a uniformly strong cast would be understating the incredible work these actors did keeping me engaged in what I felt was a bromidic and repetitive telling of a mildly salacious story.
Teitel apparently named her play The Apology because later in life Mary “apologized” for her young lifestyle believing it had been a failed experiment. Had Teitel actually dramatized this conclusion in her play, perhaps the ride might have taken on more meaning. Instead we leave the foursome still very much snarled in their toxic behaviour making the two hours spent in the theatre the only failure I could wrap my head around.
For the guys and the girls – This play could have been retitled Young People Behaving Badly. Yes, it’s fun to see the wild private lives of such well-known authors and poets at first. But a lack of connection to the characters and tedium with their situation may leave you wishing you could enjoy their art and know less about the artist. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Teitel herself notes that she doesn’t come up with any answers in this play which will probably translate into an understandable ‘what is the point?’ feeling for you. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – Great performances and occasional lovely writing can’t save this play from tedium. Still, this cast is worth your attention. MAYBE SEE IT