I knew I had to see Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, co-produced by Slow Blue Lions and The Howland Company, and playing at the Toronto Fringe Festival, when I watched it receive a Cayle Chernin production award (supporting women in theatre and film) earlier this year, and found myself fascinated by the premise. A couple, lawyer Bernadette (Ruth Goodwin) and musician Oliver (James Graham), struggle against a new law that’s been put in motion: each person is only allowed to speak as many words in a day as there are characters in a Tweet. Yes, that means 140 words are all you get. Words in all their various permutations are my life, so to me this was a horror movie cloaked in a relationship story. The play does manage to marry those elements of romantic comedy and existential dread in ways that are surprising, charming, and poignant. While the concept might seem outlandish, the execution is sharp and thoughtful.
Even before their words become more valuable than gold, Oliver and Bernadette are very different people, initially united only by a chance meeting at a pet cemetery. In many ways, watching them, you might wonder what holds the two together. Oliver is petulant and insecure, devoted to doomed protests; Bernadette is avoidant and feels as though she’s always painted as “the bad guy” for her higher paycheque and profession. They love each other, but communication is not their strong point, which makes them a great lens through which to view the word restriction. We see the creeping frustration, disappointment, fear and lethargy the bill engenders, along with the hope of creative solutions such as combining words and other work-arounds.
The structure of the play is intricate and rewarding; it jumps around in time to more effectively show the thematic counterpoints, but it never gets so disjointed that it becomes confusing. This is aided by two exceptionally strong performances by the actors, who pace the crisp dialogue and time shifts perfectly. Excellent situating lighting and atmospheric sound design also help with keeping viewers on track.
The bill itself serves as a neat stand-in for just about any restrictive government measure that you may think will never become a reality and affect you – until it does. How will it disproportionately affect the poor, and be circumvented by the rich? How does something so seemingly ludicrous result in apathy from anyone? These are only a few of the questions the play asks. Many of the most thoughtful questions are about language and how it affects relationships: can you become closer together, or more honest, when you’re only able to speak a few words? How many words would you save for your loved one and how many do you keep for your job? What would you say to your significant other if you only had five minutes to get it all out before you were restricted indefinitely, and couldn’t pledge to “talk about it later”?
This is not to say that the play is a ponderous thought exercise. It’s witty and has flashes of carefree fun, like when the couple decides to blow their daily word limit on a nostalgic TV theme. The characters are both developed and realistic.
Though the structure is excellent, it does seem about 5 to 10 minutes too long at the moment; particularly because a lot of the same argumentative notes are hit more times than strictly necessary. It’s also, ironically, quite wordy; the words are enjoyable, but it would have been interesting to see some additional exploration of silence and its role in communication.
I think Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons should be seen. Though it’s a show about a lack of words, I’m betting it’s going to spark a lot of conversation.
- Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons plays at The Theatre Centre’s Franco Boni Theatre. (1115 Queen St. W.)
- Tickets are $12. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Fringe Club at Scadding Court, and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- Content Warning: Mature Language.
- This venue is accessible.
- Thursday July 6th, 08:15 pm
- Saturday July 8th, 02:15 pm
- Sunday July 9th, 05:45 pm
- Monday July 10th, 11:00 pm
- Wednesday July 12th, 02:15 pm
- Friday July 14th, 09:15 pm
- Sunday July 16th, 01:00 pm
Photo of Ruth Goodwin and James Graham by Dan Abramovici