Bliss at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times is abstract theatre at its best
For the majority of the first part of Buddies In Bad Times’ production of Bliss it isn’t clear why the characters are dressed as Wal-Mart employees. But the show doesn’t come together in a way that makes sense at all until its final quarter, which is one of its finest features.
The premise is about celebrity, using the personage of Céline Dion as a vehicle; that much is clear from the outset. The set is sparse, just a platform and a bed where the pregnant Céline Dion is ordered to rest by her doctor and attended to by her family. All roles are played by the ostensible Wal-Mart employees who are devoted Céline fans.
As the surrealist narrative unfolds, however, the bedridden person is no longer Céline and the family around her, the life she leads, is definitely not the sort to be featured in glossy magazines.
Eventually we get to Wal-Mart in a way that makes your brain work for the pay-off. This is not an easy show. It is about celebrity but it is a far cry from a spoof or a satire. Rather, it is about the way celebrity culture can manifest, and be used as a manipulative tool, in the subjugation of people who are not famous, nor will ever be.
There were a couple of times that I laughed out loud and the rest of the audience did as well. There were a couple of times that I laughed out loud and no one else (other than perhaps my companion) let out more than a titter. There were a couple of times I wanted to laugh but was too uncomfortable. This is a show that wants to make you uncomfortable, and it succeeds. It is even more uncomfortable if you are aware that some of the truly horrific things described in the show are based on a true story.
I can’t help but think that if the timing onstage had allowed me to laugh more, then I also would have been more drawn in to the emotional plight of the characters. Like most people, I am most susceptible to tears after a good laugh (and vice versa.) As the actors switch characters and settings frequently, my ability to be deeply invested was compromised and I feel would have been benefitted by a more indulgent of the humour.
The character transitions were not always smooth, and some of the French Canadian accent work was spotty. It kept me thinking the entire time, though. The fragmented pieces of the narrative were intriguing and when they finally fit together it was very satisfying.
My companion, who is not what one would call an experienced theatre-goer, said that it was weird but she enjoyed it, and, more importantly, was never bored. I could see this play easily being boring if it was not directed and performed with both heart and mindful engagement. It’s very abstract, very dark, and it works very well.
–Bliss plays at Buddies In Bad Times’ (12 Alexander) until April 8th
-Showtimes are Tuesday-Saturday at 8:00pm and Sunday 2:30pm
-Tickets are $23 to $33 with some PWYC matinees
-Tickets are available at 416-975-8555 or online at www.totix.ca
Photo of Trent Pardy, Jean Robert Bourdage & France Rolland by Jeff Mann