Review: The Middle Place (Canadian Stage Company)

By Adam Collier


 

Canadian Stage is presenting The Middle Place at the Berkeley Street Theatre.

Like other works – including, most recently, African Women Are As Strong As the Baobab Tree – that have been produced in this space, The Middle Place attempts to take on a serious topic quite directly.

Though unlike previous works, The Middle Place is what’s called verbatim theatre. What this means – according to the program – is that the text is lifted from interviews. In this case the interviews were with homeless youth and caseworkers in a shelter in “a very rough neighborhood” in Toronto.

On reading this disclosure, I felt myself tensing-up before the performance.

Interviews – especially edited ones, as the program says they are for The Middle Place – offer a couple of problems that I knew I wouldn’t be able to put aside. The big one is that there’s no reason to believe that the interviews are with random subjects. The interview subjects volunteer themselves – this is actually mentioned in the text. So there’s the potential for a selfish-use of the forum.

I don’t mean this as a way of dismissing what the subjects have to say. But, even before the show began I couldn’t help wondering if The Middle Place is a representation of what’s average amongst homeless youth?

Take for example one subject that calls herself “Nevaeh.” She tells us that her father abused her. That she has fallen in love with another homeless youth. And that she is pregnant.

People want a voice, and people want to be heard. Wouldn’t any young person that faces the arrival of a child; that also has an unstable family background and a drifting partner want to voice that to a person that seems to listen? That a playwright – not a psychiatrist – is providing a nominal therapy for such vexing emotional problems is – I think – in itself a valuable lesson about the resources lacking in youth shelters.

Sure, that’s a compelling story. But what does “Nevaeh” tell us about living in a homeless shelter specifically?

For example, how does a person hold a job while living in a shelter? Homeless youth are not necessarily unemployed. But the work just brushes on this subject. Or, what is the difference – and subjects mention there is a big one – between staying in a shelter during the summer compared to in the winter?

Instead of digging into the specific issues a homeless shelter presents, for the most part The Middle Place concerns itself with the background stories of young people that have complicated emotional and social circumstances.

All that said, the minimal, intense lighting by Kimberly Purtell, along with the sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne manages to make The Middle Place a bit more location specific. Blustering from a heating duct is a constant sound, and a shrill electrical buzzing punctuates the performance.

I got a sense of impersonal, institution-like living conditions.

After the show I talked to a couple about work. They really enjoyed it, because “it just scratched the surface of what was going on. But gave enough. I really like that.” And the performances by Akosua Amo-Adem and Antonio Cayonne both get a lot of laughs.

So The Middle Place is, evidently, valuable and entertaining. But I just couldn’t get into The Middle Place.

For example, when the playwright – sitting in a chair well above and apart from the subjects – says to “Nevaeh” that he has called her back for a second interview, distinguishing her from the other subjects – suggesting that most of the material was gathered from single interviews with the subjects – I was reminded of my own doubts about the research methods behind the work. Maybe it can be enough to go to a homeless shelter twice, and then construct a play from that. But, I hesitate to agree.

Near the end of the show, I found myself trying to overcome another problem I suspected might come-up, because of the methodology. That’s the fallacy of authority.

Specifically, the text offers the subjects’ thoughts on homeless youth as an aggregate group. But just because a person happens to be a homeless youth doesn’t mean they have any expertise on the subject as a whole.

As a work of social awareness, that has – as the program notes – toured high schools, The Middle Place is, I suppose, a success. I can’t in good conscious recommend this work though.

However – as I said – some members of the audience enjoyed The Middle Place, so I don’t want to discourage anyone.

Details

The Middle Place is playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street; just east of Parliament Street, south of Front).

– The show runs Monday to Saturday, at 8:00 p.m. There is a matinee on Wednesday afternoon at 1:30 and Saturday at 2:oo.

The Middle Place closes on March 12th. For more information, please see www.canadianstage.com, or call 416-368-3110