Looking for the Character Behind So Much Wit

Yesterday, I saw Wit at Pacific Theatre by Margaret Edson. It was moving and brilliantly acted.

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The story almost all takes place in the hospital and in the present. 50-year-old Dr. Vivian Bearing, professor of 17th century metaphysical poetry specializing in John Donne, has been diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer. “There is no stage 5,” she tells us.

She narrates the story for us and we watch her when she learns of her diagnosis, when she is reminiscing about her successful academic career, when she is undergoing medical exams, when she pukes her brains out into a bucket, when she is screaming and writhing in pain from the effects of the full dosage medication the doctor gives her, and lastly, when she walks from this world into the next. Through this all, we see, as the play’s description reads, “her intellectual armour giv[ing] way to her need for human kindness.”

Katharine Venour, who plays Vivian Bearing, did a thoroughly convincing job as an unrelentingly hard academic and as a cancer patient whose pain, fears, and vulnerability felt entirely believable. Her dry humour and cynicism gave her a lot of funny lines and I laughed much more than I thought I would in a play about a woman dying of cancer.

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Photo by Emily Cooper.

In pondering the play more and more though, I can’t remove the niggling feeling that something was missing.

I think it had to do with the fact that as sympathetic as Vivian was, I didn’t know her very well, and it’s hard for me to fully embrace a character that I don’t know. This is more an issue I have with the storyline.

Because Vivian is such a demanding professor who puts research above relationships, no one comes to visit her in the hospital (except at the very end, her old professor played by Erla Faye Forsyth shows up and reads her Runaway Bunny in one of the most touching and human scenes of the play).

When the young Dr. Jason Pozner doing his fellowship takes Vivian’s medical history, we learn that her parents have died and she has no siblings. This accounts for no immediate family members visiting her in the hospital, but what about an uncle, an aunt, even a cousin?  One of the best ways to know someone is to watch them with their family, but aside from one flashback between Vivian and her distant father, we aren’t shown any family. I know this is part of the point—to show how isolated Vivian is—and I know some people just don’t have any siblings—but I find it difficult to really know, and hence connect with a character (in a novel or play), if I don’t see them with people who share some common history.

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Katharine Venour  as Vivian and Dan Amos as Dr. Jason Pozner. Photo from soulfoodvancouver.blogspot.com

There’s a really funny line when Dr. Pozner asks Vivian some questions like, “Ever been married?” “Every been pregnant?” to which the answer is “no”, and then in his casually charming and completely insensitive way, “Okay, well that’s it for life history.” Vivian responds with one of her many wry asides to the audience that goes something like, “Yup, because that’s all my life history.” We laugh because of course there’s more to a person/a woman than marriage or kids, but the play doesn’t actually fill in those gaps of her life story so all we know is she’s an excellent and exacting Donne scholar and she has no family or friendships. I wanted a bit more.

On the other hand, you could say this missing piece highlights a central theme of the play in reminding us of what really matters in life (and death).

Thankfully, we witness a thread of friendship in the short relationship Vivian develops with a compassionate nurse named Susie.

Being a Donne fan myself, I highly enjoyed all the quotations and references to his work (the classroom scene was superb). His Holy Sonnet X got the most air time, and Vivian’s professor delivered a gripping speech near the beginning on why there should be a comma and not a colon between “more” and “Death” in the last line. It is not an awkward and abrupt semicolon that separates us from life and death. It is a breath, a whisper, a comma.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.

My favourite audio version of this poem is in this opening to Canadian spoken word poet Shane Koyczan‘s Move Pen Move, which, no matter how many times I hear it, moves every piece of me.

Wit is showing at Pacific Theatre until tomorrow, June 11.

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The Foreigner

On Thursday night at the Surrey Arts Centre, I got to see Pacific Theatre‘s production of The Foreigner presented by the Arts Club on Tour. I had been meaning to see this at PT when it first came out in Vancouver but didn’t get around to it, so was very delighted to hear I could have another opportunity—and with all the same original cast!

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It’s been a while since I’ve taken in some live theatre and it was wonderful. I had pretty high expectations as this was the play in which John Voth, who plays Charlie, won a Jessie award for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Lead Role.

The quick synopsis of the play from PT’s website reads:

Charlie is visiting from England, painfully shy and very much in need of rest. His friend has the perfect solution – he leaves him at a rural fishing lodge, telling his hosts that Charlie is from an exotic foreign land and speaks no English. All is well until “the foreigner” overhears more than he should.

It was funny; it was serious; it was silly; it was sinister.

When Charlie gets dropped off at a rural fishing lodge in Georgia by his friend Froggy, he appears uptight and concerned with his ailing yet cheating wife. I learned a great word from this review of the play: “milquetoast.” It means “a person who is tired or submissive.” Yes, this describes Charlie perfectly. He sits at the kitchen table in the first scene, looking like Eeyore, and asks Froggy, “How does one acquire personality? What must it be like to tell a funny story? To arouse laughter? Anger? Respect? To be thought wise?”

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Erla Faye Forsyth as Betty and Ryan Scramstad as Froggy.

Very prescient question. Froggy tells Betty, the garrulous, doting woman who runs the lodge, that Charlie is a non English-speaking foreigner who wants some peace and quiet. She is fascinated by the idea of a foreigner and treats him like her pet. Catherine and her fiancé, the reverend David, are staying at the lodge too, as well as Catherine’s slow but likeable brother Ellard. The play largely develops from each character’s interaction with the foreigner.

The audience gradually sees Charlie acquire personality as he acts out the roles the various guests at the lodge attribute to him: Catherine’s confessor, Ellard’s pupil, Betty’s pet skunk. Catherine is told Charlie doesn’t speak English so she tells him all her secrets, including how she feels about becoming a preacher’s wife. Ellard gets a boost of confidence (and so does everyone else) by teaching Charlie English in a record amount of time. Betty has someone she gets to completely spoil, true to the profile of a typical southern woman.

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On left: Ellard played by Peter Carlone. Right: Charlie played by John Voth

What impressed me so much about the play was the script, written by Larry Shue. It was such an unusual and refreshing plot, where a lot of the words are gibberish (when Charlie has to speak in his “native” tongue at the request of his new friends). I heard some other audience members saying as they walked out of the theatre, “I wonder if the actors say the same words each time, or if the gibberish is different in each performance.” I was wondering the same thing.

Regardless, it was extremely amusing and John Voth was utterly in his element, acting the meek and mild Charlie at the beginning, and then erupting into the life of the party with his unconventional ways of storytelling. The sinister parts come into play with the character of David, (Catherine’s fiancé) who has his own dirty secret and who’s in cahoots with Owen, a slimeball involved with the KKK.

Erla Faye Forsyth (Betty), Peter Carlone (Ellard) John Voth (Charlie) Kaitlin Williams (Catherine)

Erla Faye Forsyth (Betty), Peter Carlone (Ellard) John Voth (Charlie) Kaitlin Williams (Catherine)

But it all works up to a rewarding climax where the bad guys are given their comeuppance and the good guys succeed and grow closer, so much closer that the hint of a relationship between Charlie and Catherine is implied. What surprised me (and somewhat disappointed me) is that Charlie never reveals his secret in the end. He still has everyone fooled that he’s a foreigner, and I went away asking, “Is this a good thing or not?” On one hand, yes—play-acting has allowed him to become someone he couldn’t have been otherwise, perhaps even more himself. But on the other hand, the moral issue remains, “But he’s still lying to all of them!” David turns out to be a big scumbag and liar at the end, but how different is Charlie from this if he also doesn’t tell Catherine the truth?

Maybe other theatre-goers don’t analyze out the aftermath to the same extent I do, but I was curious about the note it ends on. Charlie very much embodies this quote by Oscar Wilde:

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

For those of you interested in seeing The Foreigner (which I recommend), it’s on at the Surrey Arts Centre until February 28. For those of you who have seen it, what are your thoughts?

Leave: of Absence

If any of you are in the Vancouver area from now until Feb 16, I highly recommend seeing this play:

Leave of Absence posterIt’s at Pacific Theatre in the basement of Holy Trinity Church on W 13 and Hemlock:

Pacific Theatre in Vancouver

By Vancouver playwright Lucia Frangione, the synopsis reads:

A community is blown apart when an audacious young girl challenges long-held views of spirituality and sexuality. The world premiere of a searing drama of bigotry and transcendence by the author of Espresso.

In the play, four adults wrestle with their beliefs, their contradictions, their prejudices, their hurt, their anger, their doubt, and their questions in response to a 15-year-old girl and what is going on in her world. A theme linking their reactions is absence (hence the title). They all embody this word in their own ways and extents: an absent priest, an absent teacher, an absent mother, and an absent father.

What does absence look like?

Van Gogh, Pair of Shoes, 1886

For me, there was no clearer picture than the sight of these shoes.

Empty.

Left-behind.

Holes.

A scene in the play involving a pair of shoes brought this van Gogh painting so vividly to mind.

When I first came across this painting – an art history class in undergrad – I remember looking at it in the textbook and moving on quickly. There wasn’t anything particular special about a faded, worn-out pair of shoes. Then I read the description of it and if I could trace my first moment of “art appreciation,” I think it would be to that moment where I then realized this was so much more than a still life painting of shoes. Sometimes (most times I’d say) you don’t need to explain art to appreciate it, but other times, it really helps. It helped me see differently.

[read about the philosophical debate these shoes inspired over here]

Van Gogh, Pair of Shoes, 1886

Van Gogh, Pair of Shoes, 1886

Here is a picture of absence, a still life of what is left behind after a person’s life – their holes, their soles/souls. There is a sacredness to this ordinary pair of shoes. The laces are freshly untied, the leather is weathered. They are men’s shoes, worker’s shoes. Sitting there after a long day’s work or after life itself? They smell like him, they look like him. Like sadness? Like exhaustion? Holes for two feet to slip in or out of. The absence of what should be there makes the person’s presence stronger. Your mind mentally fills them in. That’s what holes do.

A letter (not one of St. Augustine’s). This one is actually from Bess Truman to Harry

When I was at UVic, a girl I knew in the Classics department was writing her thesis on presence and absence. Not in van Gogh’s work, but in St. Augustine’s. What medium did she use to explore this? His letters. When St. Augustine wrote a letter to somebody, his presence was all over it – it was signed by him, he wrote and penned the words, and his  state of mind came through in the way he expressed himself. The same could be said for us if we were to take up this lost art. Yet Augustine’s absence was everywhere in those letters. The written words remind the recipient that the living person isn’t there. They speak for him but they’re not him. A substitute at best. Ink for flesh.

Three arts.

Three ways of showing absence.

Three ways of fighting it.