Review: THIS (Alumnae Theatre)

Performers Audra Gray and Amanda Jane Smith discussing life in THIS.Inventive staging and strong performances feature in THIS, now on stage in Toronto

Alumnae Theatre’s THIS offers a complex, contemporary drama bolstered by clever staging, a well-structured script, and excellent performances by its five cast members. I was impressed by the quality of stagecraft on every level — if you enjoy relationship-based dramas with a contemporary feel, this isn’t one to miss.

When THIS opened with its characters gathered for drinks in the aftermath of a dinner party, I expected a classic dinner party drama à la Arthur Miller. THIS didn’t stick to that model for long, however; it ended up exploring several diverse locations in a way that felt entirely fresh and engaging.

These changes in location were greatly aided by the staging. I simply loved the set, which consisted of nine tall panels with slight variations: some were semi-transparent, some were on hinges, some had shelves stocked with living-room knickknacks. Thanks to the versatility of this design, different parts of the stage could be highlighted or concealed, and I was easily transported from one location to another: from a living room to an entranceway to a jazz club.

The set, which sometimes evoked locations rather than aiming for strict realism, was also a great metaphor for the way the characters’ lives were under construction. I felt drawn in by the relationships between characters and the struggles they faced: coming to terms with grief, navigating life with a new baby, keeping secrets, making mistakes.

Threads of comedy also kept the play feeling lively. Most of the funniest lines were given to the flamboyant character Alan (played by Michael Harvey). The humour in his lines offset the heavy relationship anguish happening all around, and drew me into the world of the play. Alan’s enumeration of his flaws — “I habitually press ‘Reply All’” — was a particular highlight for me.

Unfortunately, my affection for Alan disappeared when he made a throwaway joke about rapists choosing their victims on the basis of attractiveness. I found it hard to like Alan after that, but not everyone will have the same reaction. My friend Emma said the line didn’t especially stand out for her.

THIS felt contemporary in part because it name-dropped or briefly touched on issues like bilingualism (evoked by the character of Jean-Pierre, played by Christian Martel), postpartum depression, rewriting or censoring history in textbooks, and whether culturally-specific words are off-limits to people who don’t belong to that culture.

I say THIS “name-dropped” these issues because, in nearly every case, they were mentioned but not explored very deeply (certainly not as deeply as I would have liked). Since the main drama was about love, marriage, and (in)fidelity, these other issues were treated as part of the background, perhaps with the intention of heightening the play’s realism.

Emma and I both thought the script could have been tightened in places, especially the scene where Alan shows off his perfect memory in an interview. (A perfect memory also seems like an odd characteristic for a generally scatterbrained character). As for the scene where Marrell (played by Audra Yulanda Gray) writes song lyrics while Tom (Andrew Batten) sands a piece of wood, Emma found it a little long, but the length didn’t bother me.

I thought that some dialogue could have been trimmed, however; characters do a lot of unnecessary clarifying. Simplifying these frequent “Are you talking about x?” / “I’m talking about y!” moments would have tightened the script and reduced the play’s runtime.

Finally, while I was emotionally invested in the overarching plot of the play, some moments of conflict felt slightly manufactured. When Marrell begins to confide in Jane (played by Amanda Jane Smith) on the park bench, for instance, her sudden burst of suspicion — picking on Jane’s intonation — didn’t feel justified by the character’s circumstances.

All of my minor critiques, however, are overshadowed by the consistently high quality of THIS’s script, production, and performances. Every cast member gave a compelling performance, but Jane’s monologue about her “perfect” marriage was a standout — it was painful and exquisite to watch.

I recommend this play to anyone who enjoys meaty, relationship-based drama. Visit the washroom — the play is 90 minutes without an intermission — then settle in for some top-quality theatre.

Details

  • THIS is playing September 16 – October 1, 2016, at the Alumnae Theatre Company (70 Berkeley Street, Toronto)
  • Shows run at 8 pm from Wednesday – Saturday and at 2 pm on Sunday
  • Tickets cost $20; Wednesdays are 2-for-1 pricing; Sundays are PWYC
  • Tickets can be purchased online or at the door (cash only)
  • Special audience events:
    • Thu Sep 22, 6:45 pm: Join director Rebecca Ballarin and the show designers in the lobby to find out how the show was created. Stay or the show or return another night. (Snacks will be served!)
    • Sun Sep 25Post-show talkback with cast and crew

Photo of Audra Yulanda Gray as Marrell and Amanda Jane Smith as Jane, by Bruce Peters

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