Review: A City (Necessary Angel)

Necessary Angel explores theatre through tableaus at the Artscape Sandbox in Toronto

A City, based on playwright Greg MacArthur’s experiences in Montreal with a group of young theatre artists, bills itself as a version of a “tableau vivant” (a silent arrangement of human beings that forms a still picture). If you’re worried that means a lot of dead air on stage, don’t be; the emphasis in Necessary Angel’s production at Artscape Sandbox is definitely on the “vivant,” with near-constant motion and intimate connection with the audience in 65 quick minutes.

It’s fitting that the so-called tableaux are in motion, because the show revolves around liminal states, those moments in between when you can feel an ending coming (a life, an era, a friendship), but the realization hasn’t quite arrived. It’s a comment on our desire but ultimate inability to freeze time.

A City does a masterful job of quickly establishing four very distinct characters from the same world; they feel very real, at least as our acquaintances if not friends (this can be a good or bad thing, depending on how you feel about their personalities – I was eventually won over). There’s acerbic, neurotic Graham (an intense David Patrick Flemming), shy hipster musician Paddy (Cole J. Alvis), narcissistic, name-dropping Andy, (Justin Goodhand, full of puppy-dog energy), and hyper-aware Gemma (Amy Keating), whose wonder at life creates the show’s centre.

The personalities matter, because it’s a “hangout” show, filled with Friends-type moments between the four as they discuss and bicker over life, death, how to make roasted chickpeas, scientific news articles, epic parties and slow cookers rescued from sidewalks. The dialogue skews towards the funny and charming, but with a dark undertone.

Timing is crucial, and all the actors do excellent work with a script that is simultaneously naturalistic and fourth-wall-breaking; after the first five minutes, you can even forget that all the “ums” and “ahs” are scripted. Speech is occasionally punctuated with the characters’ use of various microphones, a technique which was used for interruption, emphasis and effect, but which didn’t quite gel for me.

The inciting incident for all this chatter is the untimely death of a “spontaneous” visual artist who fascinated the quartet, a larger-than-life friend they looked up to, always slightly out of orbit, (they even give him an amusingly specific and jarring pseudonym). This artist used the four friends to make his tableaux, arranging them as people to form still photographs of scenes of death, and exploiting the innate human desire to be seen. What does his death mean, and does he deserve their reverence? (The look on Goodhand’s face when Andy fights the devolution of a “funny” story involving the artist that’s actually manipulative and uncomfortable, for example, is priceless.)

The philosophy and musings  fall under the category of “young attractive white artist problems,” but the show’s saving grace is that it’s also very self-aware and not above self-mockery. It mostly knows when to take itself seriously, and when not to. It puts the characters’ shortcomings on display, appropriately; the set has the look of the gallery installation the show promises, slick, modern and sterile, all Plexiglass cubes and fluorescent bulbs.

For a show that’s supposedly inspired by the indelible uniqueness of Montreal, though, I felt it embodied the characters much more than the feeling of the city; in fact, it spends much more time hilariously discussing the peculiarities of Los Angeles than it does the characters’ home base. As well, the frenetic dance/movement breaks (sometimes involving Vitamin Water) seem to be reaching for meaning without completely succeeding.

Overall, I enjoyed A City. It’s an affable play with hints at a deeper substance within. When a character says “I,” someone inevitably interrupts with “we.” That exploration of the individual versus the group, of singular versus shared experience, and of different points of view is when the show becomes more than the sum of its (moving) parts: more than just a pretty picture.

Details

  • A City is playing at Artscape Sandbox (301 Adelaide St. West)
  • Performances run March 14-April 2 2017.
  • Showtimes are Tuesday-Saturday 8:00 PM, with 2:00PM Saturday and Sunday matinees. There’s a 5:30PM matinee instead on Sunday, April 2.
  • Tickets range from $20-40, and can be purchased online or at the door.

Photo of Cole J. Alvis, Amy Keating, Justin Goodhand and David Patrick Flemming by Michael Cooper

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