(l to R) Karen Schlag and Christie Stryk in Red Death. Photo credit VJ Arizpe.
Written by: Lisa D’Amour
Directed by: Jennifer Decker
Company: Mildred’s Umbrella
Run Dates: October 9-25, 2014
For a critic, coming to a show late in the run is fraught with challenges. Firstly, how not to expose yourself to your colleague’s reviews (check!). Then what to do about your own thoughts? With only four more performances left in Mildred’s Umbrella’s production of Lisa D’Amour’s Red Death, does one take a day to craft a comprehensive review or instead offer up musings in the hope that their timeliness will be of use to audiences yet to see the show? In this case, I opt for usefulness as opposed to pretty prose. Especially considering when it comes to this play, I’m not altogether sure anything comprehensive can be said. Which brings me to my first point:
There are some plays you understand but don’t necessarily enjoy (I’m talking to you Godot). Then there are plays you don’t fully grasp but the experience is so fantastical you barely care (much of Robert Lepage’s work.) Then there are plays where not only do you not completely get what the playwright is going for, but the enjoyment of the ride waxes and wanes. D’Amour’s Red Death falls into this latter category.
We know going in that the inspiration for the play comes from Edgar Allen Poe’s gothic fantasy, The Masque of the Red Death and it’s quite obvious that hints of Kafka, Vonnegut, Bradbury et al are all at work in the concept. Director Jennifer Decker even has her main character casually reading Kafka in a beach scene in case we didn’t clue in. But whereas those inspirational stories offer up moral compasses, ethical quandaries and warnings to be heeded, Red Death seems content to simply be cryptic.
Jane Whithers (Christie Guidry-Stryk) is on a quest to find the “origin of evil, the root of denial and the basic human weakness that causes us to fear death”. She’s been charged with this task by an unseeable ‘panel’ that operates outside of federal law and uses any means necessary to get information and instill dread. Jane apparently is supposed to kill childhood acquaintance, Prospero (Jon Harvey) with whom she shares a horrific past. But in nonlinear fashion we also are shown that Jane herself is a target of the panel, either for her own murderous indiscretions or as some sort of master plan that is as ambiguous and frankly uninteresting as a bad X-Files episode.
D’Amour gives us very little to latch onto intellectually in her script. We see the mystery and thriller elements. Will Jane kill her mark? Who else will she take down in the process? How does she know Prospero in the first place? We are given some reprieve from the confusion by the absurdist situations and hints of dark comedy along the way. Of note is the inclusion Prospero’s daughter (Bree Bridger) who makes the term beach slut seem an understatement. But with no way to tunnel down into what it might all mean (Everyone is evil? Everyone is targeted? Our lives are all determined by evil forces? If so, yawn) Red Death becomes a very surface skimming experience that mistakes nebulous existentialism with heady narrative.
Thanks to Jodi Bobrovsky’s chillingly moody set that seems a cross between wood-slatted sunshine and the shattering of glass, Greg Starbird’s in your face lighting that paints each of the seven short scenes in a distinct wash of colour and Decker’s direction that teases out a few notable performances, Red Death manages to hold our attention more than it should.
Sure, we don’t really get the point, and no, we really don’t much care if Jane is the avenger or redeemer. But as the lights go down in between each small scene and yet another cleverly juxtaposed atmospheric song with sunshine in the lyrics comes on (Good Day Sunshine, Sunny Side of the Street, You are My Sunshine) we can’t help but be mildly intrigued by what will come next.
If the anticipation doesn’t flow from the story itself, it certainly does from some of the performances. Rod Todd as Jane’s father gets only one small scene in the play, but utterly steals the show with his fumbly naiveté and fatherly worry about his daughter. As the panel detective sent to investigate Jane, Ronald Reeder makes us laugh again and again by simply perfecting the timing of the word, OK. Karen Schlag as Connie, Prospero’s wife, is an eerie simulacrum of nerves gone awry that wonderfully takes up all the oxygen in the theater when she is on stage.
My litmus test for a play such as this relies on if I’m still thinking about it or trying to figure it out post curtain. Are there nuggets there to be mined that are worth the effort? If there are, I haven’t found them. Nor was in intrigued enough to spend much time looking.
Should Decker have played up the absurdist elements more, given us a creepier tale or given more room for the humour? Perhaps. But I fear that pushing envelopes in this manner would only have been putting cover-up on a poorly made up face.
Instead I will offer kudos to the production team for doing their best to keep my attention in what I found to be a frustratingly flawed play.