Kyall Rakoz, Conrad Belau, Alyssa Bradac. Photo credit Bree Gardner.
This is How I Left
March 28 – 31st, 2013
Living Spirit United Church
How do we go on when the person we love dies? Who are we without them? How do we face the fear and possible rejection of being our authentic self? To what lengths will we go to find connection? These are some of the important questions asked in Third Street Theatre’s inaugural and original production This is How I Left. Questions so universal, they could have been the fodder for any play on any stage in Calgary. But what’s makes this show different is that these themes of love, loss and fitting in are all told from an LGBT perspective. A perspective not simply or lightly trotted out for this show. Third Street Theatre’s mandate is, “ the positive promotion of queer culture, stories, and voices …. in order to engage and educate”. To this I’d add, entertain intelligently, as was shown by this uniquely compelling first production.
Grieving the loss of her wife Sarah to a freak accident while deployed in Iraq, Sam (Alyssa Bradac) is undergoing grief counselling at a military hospital. It’s just a few years since Sam has been able to be openly gay with Sarah’s military colleagues as the infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was finally done away with. But even with this access to the military’s therapy services, Sam isn’t doing well. Counselling isn’t working, she is unable to continue her career as a writer and she is spiralling dangerously downward in her grief unable to let go of Sarah and truly say goodbye. In a distinctly non-ghost like fashion, Sam is visited by the spirit 17-year old transgender woman named Alex (Conrad Belau) who is having her own hard time dealing with the reality of her violent death. Thinking at first that she is going insane, Sam rejects the ghost with comedic aplomb. But soon the two realize that only by trusting each other and revealing parts of their stories will Alex be able to remember and come to terms with her death and will Sam finally be able to move past grief into living once again.
The stories they reveal, told through flashback for Alex in a Dickens-esque Ghost of Christmas past fashion and through monologue, video and letter reading for Sam, show the very human and painful side of each of these characters. Rejected and made fun of for most of her young life, Alex finally finds love with her “Peter Pan”(Kyall Rakoz) and while she is afraid of revealing her sexual identity, she is in love and loved and happy for the first time. But secrets have a way of becoming known when you aren’t looking and even her friend and new confidant Elle (Lindie Last) can keep her safe. Sam has had strong and good love for thirteen years with Sarah, but even strong relationships get strained and Sam feels the mourner’s guilt of her barely-there indiscretion. These are both characters unsure of themselves as individuals and trapped in a kind of no woman’s land of self-doubt.
It all sounds horribly dark and depressing, and by no means is this play an uplifting or feel good kind of show. But what the creation ensemble writers of this piece have thankfully realized is that you can’t bombard the audience with preachy downer heavy-handedness for 80 minutes and expect to make your point. This is How I Left is smartly peppered with some wonderfully witty, sweet and lighthearted moments to help us connect with these characters in order to care about their struggle. We are shown a beautifully romantic anniversary video Sam made for Sarah using the now ubiquitous flashcard method, setting up how the two women met and fell in love. This private moment rendered public for us in a huge wall-sized projection instantly seals our affection for the grieving widow. Sam’s sharp but funny quips as she processes Alex’s existence and time travel abilities provides some much-needed laughter and a break from the unhappiness of the story. The bus-stop meeting of Alex and her soon to be boyfriend, ‘Peter’ is a geeky, sweet moment that charms us with its awkwardness.
But as creative as the storytelling is and how nicely balanced between light and dark emotions, This is How I Left at times feels somewhat forced, clichéd and overstuffed. Hackneyed lines like, “We are all connected like the walls of a labyrinth,” cheapen the mostly authentic voice of the script. More problematic is that this play suffers from multiple ending syndrome. Not content to end on a somewhat blurry but artistically fascinating note where the plot twist we didn’t even know was coming is revealed, the play goes on and on giving us one final moment after another diluting impact and adding unnecessary and manipulative heart-wringing plot elements. Narratively, this is a show that feels so close to wonderful and yet quite off the mark in a few spots.
What was not off the mark in the slightest and what truly makes this play a triumph is the hard-working and tremendous cast. Rakoz plays ‘Peter’ with a sweet and nerdy charm and gives one of the best drunk performances I’ve seen in a long time. Last’s Elle is tough and no-nonsense yet she infuses her with a kind of loyal likeability that makes the character feel real. Belau’s turn as a transgender woman is remarkable. From his subtle mannerisms, to his cadence to his ability to conjure the innocence of a 17-year-old without one ounce of camp or regression was a joy to watch. But really, this show belongs to Bradac who owns the stage 110% with her grief and her anger and her sass and her journey from stuckness to afterlife. It’s a tour de force performance from an actress previously unknown to me, but one that I hope to see more of in future.
Rarely does a company produce a first original play without some blemishes, and while This is How I Left has its smatterings, overall this is an impressive and daring effort by a group of tremendously talented artists. If this show is any indication, we can expect great things from Third Street Theatre as they tell us the stories of the queer community and at the same time, tell us stories that we can all find truth in.
For the guys – There is nothing to be put off by here. This show is not preachy, aggressive or inaccessible in the slightest. It tells stories of queer characters that you will relate to on many levels and asks questions that are important for all of us to think about. SEE IT
For the girls – Finally a show that doesn’t put queer characters up as stereotypical, over the top characters to be laughed at. These stories resonate with empathy and sympathy and are well worth spending time with. SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – The at times cloudy story line that flashes back and forth with a somewhat complicated twist at the end may just be too much work for you. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – Some slight plot issues aside, there are many reasons to see this play. The best reason I can give you is Alyssa Bradac. SEE IT