Happy Woman humours at Toronto’s Nightwood Theatre
Nightwood Theatre set and costume designer Denyse Karn is kicking buttocks on the Toronto scene these days. In January they had the stunning Penelopiad and now they’ve followed it up with The Happy Woman at the Berkeley Street Theatre. The stage is divided into three areas, brightly coloured in green, blue and yellow, and these colours appear on every single set piece in their respective area. The five characters all have an individual colour that predominates their costumes. The symbolism is not subtle – the promiscuous woman wears red, for example – but it is striking and thus effective.
As the title indicates, the play is about a woman who is determined to be happy. But plays aren’t written about people who are actually happy (that would be boring.) And life for everyone inevitably has unfortunate situations; being determined to be happy all the time means ignoring anything that may be problematic – even to the extent of ignoring the suffering of your children, both when they are young and when they are grown.
The happy woman, Margaret (Barbara Gordon), has a son Christian (Martin Happer) and a daughter Cassie (Maev Beaty), one of whom is mired in their unhappy childhood and the other who tries to forget it, to repress it all, just like Mom. Also on the scene is Martin’s neurotic and pregnant wife Stasia (Ingrid Rae Doucet) whose grasp on sanity becomes more and more tenuous, resulting in visions and delusions that seem to reflect the siblings’ inner torment. There is also BellaDonna (Maria Vacratsis), the next door neighbour, who is a foil for Margaret by being a pessimist, a cynic and the holder of all the neighbourhood’s secrets, including the ones about her own family that Margaret may know but will never admit.
The revelation of the big family secret isn’t played for shock, which I appreciated. That would have compromised the integrity of the piece and there’s also no point in trying to shock a modern theatre audience. If you are at all like me you’ve seen rape, murder, incest, pedophilia, kidnapping, torture, etc. all graphically portrayed on the big and small screens and detailed in horrifying nuance in novels. Theatre is a different medium and being able to shock us is not one of its strengths.
One of the strengths theatre does have over those other mediums is the immediate presence of fully embodied characters. This production does not disappoint in this respect. The characters are familiar, yet not clichéd. The performances, especially the dynamics amongst the family, are fully realized. I wanted to dislike the mother character for her wilful ignorance yet ultimately I both loved and hated them all.
I also really liked the sound. From a noisy nightclub to tinkling bells or a baby crying, the transitions were seamless and the levels spot-on.
The content is not new or unique but the story has humour, the characters are deftly drawn, the relationships are powerfully performed and the set and costumes are fantastic.
– The Happy Woman is playing at at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street until March 24, 2012
-Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday matinees at 1:30 pm, Saturday matinees at 2 pm
-Tickets are as as follows:17th and Weekdays/Matinees $40; Friday/Saturday $46; Student Matinee $15; Student pricing except Wed matinee $22
-Tickets are available online or by phone at 416.368.3110
Photo of Maev Beaty by Guntar Kravis