Review: Panfish Productions New Play Contest (Panfish Productions)

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Canadian theatre is in good hands with Panfish Productions’ New Play Contest in Toronto

Walking home from the final night of the Panfish Productions New Play Contest, I had the most wonderful feeling. Yes, yes, three nights of good theatre—and that’s fantastic. But more importantly, this was an opportunity to look into the future: to explore the creative output of some of our city’s best emergent playwrights.

And they had incredible things to show us.

“Unspoken” by Nina Kaye

When I spoke to Nina about her play, she promised something overtly political: her work sought to radically shift the dialogue surrounding rape and abusive relationships. She set out to change how we think, feel and discuss these matters, and she succeeds—although not in the way I had expected.

Unspoken is often an angry show, but never acidic. Kaye doesn’t belch up vitriol or launch accusations at her audience. Instead, she is content to almost whisper questions in our ears: “You know this woman, don’t you? You’ve been to this party, haven’t you? You know where this conversation is going, right?”

Effort has clearly gone into making her characters immensely relatable, and that creates a show-defining push-pull effect. On the one hand, we understand Kaye’s characters, their situations and their decisions, and we desperately want to empathize with them; but in doing so, we cannot avoid acknowledging and coming to terms with our own experiences. We cannot imagine these scenarios without putting ourselves in the room: as witnesses, as aggressors, as victims. How would we have reacted? What assumptions would we have made? Would anyone have listened? Would you?

Her characters and their moral decisions are grey rather than black and white, and that’s important. These people feel like real people, and that’s quite an accomplishment. As an audience, we want to find paragons of virtue and moustache-twirling villains—but Kaye never indulges us, and the work is much stronger for it.

More importantly, this script’s realness and relatability make it impossible not to find this whole experience deeply disquieting, but in an indirect, subconscious and deeply personal manner. And I don’t think Kaye would have it any other way.

While this is properly a playwriting contest, I do need to tip my hat at Drea Burck, who does a magnificent job channelling a battered spouse without turning her into a spineless wreck; and at Kristen Zaza, who crackles and pops with playful mischief every time she walks onto the stage. These two are wonderful to watch, and Kaye would do herself a favour to get them on lifelong contracts.


“Offers of Home” by Stephen Joffe

Offers begins with a deconstruction. The company step onto the stage, remove items of clothing—a scarf, a hat, a shawl, a jacket—and use them to assemble a hillside scene: rolling hills, a strip of asphalt, and a single house, its lights blinking cheerfully.

As soon as I saw that, I knew I was in for something remarkable. And I was.

We visit three different environments, and in all three worlds, “home” is undergoing some process of destruction. The inhabitants of these places are gathering the pieces and plotting their next moves, and while some readily adapt to this change, others cling desperately to the remnants of their spaces—and one or two will simply have to be left behind.

Joffe wants to push us to engage with the idea of home: is it a place of safety and comfort, four walls and a roof? Or is it something far more fluid, both physically and emotionally? And if so, what do we make of “homelessness”?

There’s some clever writing here—an early drunken rant is especially good—but Joffe’s skill as an author is most visible when he’s forcing us to ask these questions. He also does his audience a service by not spoon-feeding us answers. The incompleteness of these scenarios can be jarring, but this approach also makes them feel uniquely real.

And that’s the point of the exercise: these people, the places they inhabit and the decisions they make feel shockingly real, almost to the point of mundanity. You get the impression that, walking down the street, you could pull a wall off any building you pass and find exactly these arguments occurring. Exploring them to this depth and with this purpose is enlightening and completely worthwhile, and that this exploration is embedded within a pleasant, well-written script is all the better.


“Instead of Meals” by Adam Abbas

A unique feature of Abbas’ writing is his willingness to go one step further. He seems to take a delight in constructing what feels like a finished scene, a finished character or a finished line, and then pulling a rabbit out of a proverbial hat. This effect would normally be disorienting, but because the script he’s produced is surprisingly warm, it’s actually rather charming.

The story is weird, but compelling: a young man finds his life turned upside-down by the politics of recycling. The characters he encounters—a recycling advocate, a puckish homeless person, a municipal rubbish collector—begin to treat him less and less like a human being and more like irredeemable, unrecyclable trash. This approach positions the play to say some interesting things about urban geography, human relationships, self-image and recycling as a social, cultural and political practice.

That probably makes it sound dull, but this appearance is unavoidable. Abbas is attempting to find a bridge between a fairly dull, wonky series of issues and the broader public consciousness, and he has essentially succeeded. The messages he sets out to communicate do get through, and he raises a number of difficult and awkward questions throughout the piece, but above all else he makes the audience think, consider and possibly change how we view and treat recycling, in both a metaphoric and literal sense.

I especially enjoyed Abbas’ use of distasteful and perhaps even grotesque characters. While the other two playwrights give us companies full of silver linings, here we have some people who are unashamedly, inescapably nasty: a father only his children could love; a businessman who rejects responsibility for anything outside the walls of his establishment; a recycling advocate who hopscotches around her own hypocrisies.

Where the other pieces want us to find joy in small and unexpected places, Abbas wants us to investigate and come to terms with some of the menace that lurks in our city, and in particular the danger created by a culture which treats things, environments and even people as little more than disposable articles. Slathering his characters with murky grey areas would have generated something mushy and scarcely resembling the finely-polished, perfectly-sharpened scalpel he has produced.

And Now, The Moment You’ve Been Waiting For

All three of these pieces tugged me in interesting directions, and each of them challenges the audience in subtly different ways. Kaye’s Unspoken pulls off the considerable trick of being immensely charming while simultaneously forcing us to reckon with some of the darkest corners of our lives; Joffe’s Offers of Home forces us to view things we find comforting and central to our identities through a new and distinctive lens; Abbas’ Instead of Meals dares his audience to think harder about our assumptions, our actions, our practices and the societies we inhabit, and leaves no room for blissful, wilful ignorance.

And each show feels destined for bigger and better things, even if Panfish doesn’t select them. Unspoken is practically crying out to be performed in high schools and at universities (and Kaye will find a healthy market for her work, should she head in that direction); Offers of Home desperately wants a Fringe or SummerWorks mount; Instead of Meals will speak to audiences who are not conventional theatregoers, especially those who know what it’s like to be discarded by society or to live in “recycled” spaces.

Who wins?

Well. The contest is over, and Joffe won. Offers of Home is now in the Panfish 2013 season, and congratulations on the achievement.

But in a sappy, Lifetime-movie-of-the-week way, audiences are the real winners. Each of these scripts, and each of the writers behind them, show essential promise. Even at the reading stage, they all feel like fairly complete and self-contained productions, just about ready for prime time. If we’re so fortunate as to hear from these three artists again, Canadian theatre is in good hands indeed—and that’s something we should all be applauding.

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