Ty Doran and Lindsay Ehrhardt In Tigers be Still. Photo courtesy of Black Lab Theatre.
Tigers be Still
Written by: Kim Rosenstock
Directed by: Jordan Jaffe
Company: Black Lab Theatre
Run Dates: January 15 – 31, 2015
Just like Dorothy and her gang in Oz wrung their hands over “Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!”, so too are the women in Kim Rosenstock’s play afraid of the wildlife beyond their front door. Rightly so it seems. Subtract the lion and the bear, add a modern-day, hyper real, semi absurd setting and you are left with a real tiger lurking around loose, sprung mysteriously from the local zoo and billed an extreme danger to anyone who may encounter it. A big predatory cat is nothing to laugh about, but truth be told, these women have personal troubles of their own that make a sharp clawed, flesh eater seem like an also ran in the list of reasons they can’t get themselves together.
Tigers Be Still, a darkly comedic and at times excessively quirky play, introduces us to two sisters and their mother, all suffering from depression of different genesis. Grace (Lindsay Ehrhardt) is mired in the self-pitying indulgent swamp of despair brought about by the infidelity of her betrothed. Eschewing the ‘best revenge is living well’ philosophy, Grace has moved back home where she spends her time sleeping on a “dirty couch that smells like tears” and cuddling a Jack Daniels bottle for comfort. When she’s not passed out or obsessively watching Top Gun (fast forwarding to the Berlin sound-tracked Take My Breath Away loves scenes) Grace spends her time stealing items, inanimate and otherwise, from her ex’s apartment in an effort to make him deal with her and by association, her pain. Wanda, the mother, is an invisible character, hidden away in her upstairs room, embarrassed to seen due to dramatic weight gain brought about by immune deficiency medication. To make matters worse, she’s recently and suddenly been left by the girls’ father, making her isolation even more momentous and her intrusive/gossipy phone calls downstairs to connect with the girls even more ghoul-like.
But it’s twenty-something Sherry (Samantha Slater channeling a twitchy, neurotic, stammering mix of Lisa Kudrow and Sally Hawkins) that the show centers on. With a newly minted art therapy degree, very little self-esteem and no work prospects (or boyfriend as her sister points out), Sally spirals down into her own black dogness, moving back home and sharing the self-pity couch with her sister. That is until Mom calls up an old flame, Joseph (played with wonderfully straight man absurdity by Justin Doran), to ask that he use his position as school principal to find Sally a job. We learn that Joseph and his teenage son (rising young talent Ty Doran) need Sally as much as she needs them. The loss of their wife/mother has left the pair with their own slice of depression. Joseph channels his into worrying about the tiger (which by now we realize is both a literal and metaphoric fear/danger/illness for all the characters in the play) and fretting about his son’s ability to cope with his mother’s death. Zach displays teen aggression and angst to mask the fact that he is secretly sleeping in his mother’s shoe closet as a way to hide from his own complex feelings about her death and his part in it.
Rosenstock’s jaunty, idiosyncratic dialogue is given nice tempo by director Jordan Jaffe who allows the surreal nature of the story full breadth without sending things over top. In the more serious bits, Jaffe beautifully focuses our attention, not on the weirdness of the story, but rather the personal struggle and growth of his characters. Two scenes in particular, a bristly exchange between father and son over a lasagna dinner and an opening of wounds mixed with a failed flirtation in a shoe closet are wonderfully insightful gems in this production. The comedic elements, while amusing in circumstance, aren’t given the same love and attention. Sometimes rushed, other times falling prey to the one dimensionality of the humour (as when Grace calls her ex’s cell phone to sing Bette Midler’s The Rose to his voice mail), Jaffe never seems to punch things up enough to elicit more than a mild giggle from us.
Claire “Jac” Jones’ small set mimics well the claustrophobic nature of depression and the oddness of the narrative. A dingy floral couch strewn with stuff at the women’s house serves as both sadness-central for the sisters as well as an art therapy office for Sally to try to get through to Zach. But it’s Jones’ rendering of the male space that visually scores. Affecting the emotional and aesthetic deficit that men feel when the woman in their life is gone, Jones strips bare their space with nothing but the basics, table, chair, gun. Of particular note is the one nondescript, brown hued painting hung askew on the wall. You just know that it would be righted if mom was still around.
Depression may be strangely funny and sad in Rosenstock’s hands, but she also wants us to know that it’s something that can be overcome. In the end, each character slays their own personal tiger and manages to get on with life one way or another. It’s a satisfying, if a tad too neat, ending that offers up some wonderful visual and even sweetly touching moments. Yes we’ve spent nearly two intermissionless hours with these odd ducks and their quirkiness may have worn itself thin at times. But in the end, we can’t help but cheer for each character as they take the step towards health.
For those touched by depression – Isn’t that everyone these days? Who doesn’t know someone or that’s had to deal with depression? Tigers Be Still doesn’t exactly fall neatly into the depression play category. It’s got the bathos to be a dark comedy, but it’s also got moments of pathos, heart-wrench, absurdity and corny uplift. So perhaps no matter what flavour your want your depression narrative to be, there’s something here for you. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – This is a play that has an identifiable arc where easy to swallow conclusions do happen. And for almost two hours, the cast does its best to entertain. But the abundance of quirk and absurdity (of the non-farcical kind) may just be to twee for your tastes. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – One of your main disappointments with the show (aside from the ending wrapped in a pretty bow) will be that Rosenstock has nothing new to say about depression. Sure her characters are quirky and the tiger metaphor is a clever one, but then what? Still, under Jaffe’s mostly strong direction, there are nuggets to savour in this production. Go for the parts and don’t be all too concerned with the sum. SEE IT