Review: Picture This (Soulpepper)

Soulpepper’s season opens with Picture This, now playing on the Toronto stage

Along with Waiting for Godot, Soulpepper is kicking off its fall season with Picture This, which you can catch at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until Oct. 7th.

To me, Picture This seemed pretty promising at the outset. It’s a slapstick comedy originally written in 1937 by Hungarian playwright Melchior Lengyel and adapted by celebrated artists Brenda Robins and Morris Panych. I was looking forward to this show, and took my roommate along with 100% confidence that what we were going to see would at least be watchable.

We were greeted with one of the prettiest sets I’ve ever seen: an art nouveau hotel lobby with vibrant blue walls created by Ken MacDonald. The set alone made me excited for the show, and by the time the lights went down, I was practically giddy. The show started, and sadly for me it was downhill from there.

Think ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ meets ‘The Producers’, while the moral of the story is ‘La La Land’. A ragtag group of artists in early 20th century Hungary dupe an American fur salesman into producing a movie about the Battle of Waterloo, while he in turn dupes them into thinking he’s actually a producer. The premise sounds funny enough; but for me at least, the execution wasn’t.

Unfortunatlely, the comedy fell flat for my guest and I. At first I thought to myself, ‘Panych can have some pretty dry wit, so maybe I’m missing something and I’ll warm up to this.’ But with time, I realized that this was definitely intended to be a laugh-out-loud funny show.

Many of the gags seemed unnecessary and didn’t play out well. At one point, a character is introduced as part of a joke, and throughout the first act he’s given more attention until it seems like he’ll matter to the story, but then he gets up from his seat in the lobby and leaves, discretely, never to be seen again. It didn’t make anyone laugh, and it distracted from the main plot.

The slapstick nature of the play is clearly meant to play homage to the silent films of the era this show is set in. Maybe that kind of physical comedy is just something I’m less familiar with, but I didn’t think it was particularly effective here. Many of the sight gags weren’t obvious enough at the outset, and I didn’t know that a joke was being made until it was halfway finished. The fairly plain dialogue brought down the energy of the show as well.

The audience’s reaction seemed to be tepid chuckles throughout the first act, and lukewarm chittering by the end of the third. This made some of the more outlandish attempts at comedy genuinely hard to watch. In a scene where Max Saunders, playing a real Hollywood producer, is rolling around on the floor laughing harder than anyone had throughout the entire show, it just didn’t pan out well.

The first act slowly sets up the conceit of Picture This. After intermission, I returned to the theatre to find that the beautiful set I loved so much had been replaced with a simpler movie studio. It was still well designed, but I knew then that all was truly lost. The second act opens on two characters that weren’t in the first, and we spend several unfunny minutes getting to know them as the play loses what little momentum it had.

Perhaps the most egregious thing to me was the treatment of the character Milli (Michelle Monteith), a Hungarian actress looking to break into Hollywood. Picture This doesn’t hold back in showing how she’s objectified by the men around her, with a long scene in which the actor playing Napoleon gropes her, complains that she’s “holding out on him”, and demands that she come for a “visit” that night because as an actor he needs to sleep with his co-star. Look, I get that this is an adaptation of a play written in 1937, but according to the programme they changed up a few scenes, and I don’t understand why they couldn’t do the same here or at least tone it down with the touching. Nobody was laughing, and it was just plain uncomfortable.

I did think that the cast tried their utmost with the material. Most of them, like the leads Jordan Pettle as Romberg, a failed producer, and Michelle Monteith as the aforementioned Millie, had a great deal of charm. I actually felt a sort of warmth to David Storch’s Mr. Brown, the fur salesman-turned-producer, even though his character’s main motivation was wanting to cheat on his wife with Millie. The actors weren’t doing a bad job, and the show had a good deal of polish to it, but the core of this production just didn’t do it for me.

The most I can say to this production’s benefit is that maybe this was an off night. Maybe the rhythm wasn’t right with this particular performance, or maybe something here just wasn’t my speed. From the outset, this show seemed to have a lot going for it. But at the end of the day, I’m a pretty easy-going guy that entered the theatre excited for this show, and left quite disappointed.

Details

  • Picture This is playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane) until Oct. 7th, 2017
  • Shows are at 7:30 PM, with matinee performances Wed and Sat at 1:30 PM
  • Tickets from $35 – can be purchased online or at the door
  • Run time is approximately 2 hours 10 min, with intermission

Image of Picture This ensemble provided by Cylla von Tiedemann.

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