Review: how to drown gracefully (Filament Incubator)

Photo of Becky Tanton provided by the companyhow to drown gracefully is “captivating” and “strong” theatre playing in Toronto

Kat, the main character of Becky Tanton’s how to drown gracefully (presented by Filament Incubator at Kensington Hall) spends most of the play getting in and out of a bathtub. She’s having a hard time leaving the water, which represents both a safe haven and dangerous escape. Kat (played by Tanton) wants to drown, though not in a suicidal way, just to disappear for a while. A disastrous love quadrangle has her nursing hurt feelings while confronting her own less than stellar actions. While the navel-gazing angst in the show feels very familiar, the writing made enough of a splash to make me want to wade in.

The play is staged in the round and focused on the bathtub, which is positioned centre stage and filled with enough water to leave Kat constantly dripping. With characters entering from all sides of the surrounding audience, the play feels, appropriately, immersive. The action is very immediate, happening right under your nose. (Don’t worry, there’s no splatter zone; you can observe and stay dry.)

The show is a tricky one to pull off, because though the love quadrangle is compelling, by design nobody in it seems particularly sympathetic or likable. Kat’s the messed-up Dream Girl that everyone’s attracted to, in order to either fix her up or tear her down. Elijah (Andrei Preda) is the gaslighting asshole who uses his job title and supposed maturity to convince Kat she’s overreacting about everything.

Nick (Scott Marleau) is the nicest Nice Guy who ever niced, who refuses to stay benched in Kat’s friendzone at any cost, and Mona, Nick’s girlfriend (Michelle Laplante), is a mysteriously, sweetly menacing force to be reckoned with. (She gives off a sense of canny passive-aggression so strong you’d swear she was from Minnesota.)

Because much of the proceedings are shown through Kat’s self-hating eyes, it’s hard to tell what’s so captivating about her that attracts the rest of the characters. I’d like to have seen more of the moments of charm that are clearly within her capacity. Actor and writer Tanton does succeed, though, in giving us a character who is complex and very, very human.

The script hits a lot of the same notes many times (Kat’s damage, Nick’s love) mimicking how they swirl around in her brain, but some of the repetitions don’t add much but volume. On the other hand, they help give the play its appealing elliptical structure, replete with flashbacks and juxtapositions that help us experience Kat’s demons.

The writing itself is lyrical and captivating, constantly in motion. Outside of a couple of moments where an already-clear metaphor was then spelled out, I found the author’s voice to be mature, self-assured, and distinct. It’s also slightly quirky, if you like that type of thing (Kat, a publishing house assistant, regrets not reading a number of seminal books, each time referring to them by title and author as if citing for a paper; she also has a thematically-important obsession with astrology). This is only Tanton’s second produced play, and she strikes me as a writer worth watching.

The actors capably deal with the language and rhythm, and are uniformly strong. In particular, Andrei Preda’s Elijah delivers a complex portrayal of an abuser that balances (figurative) mustache-twirling with enough professionalism and raw appeal that it’s easy to see why he causes Kat such conflict.

It’s not the easiest thing to watch Kat go through her own self-induced water torture, but you know what they say: if you can’t stand the water, get out of the bathtub.

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Photo of Becky Tanton provided by the company

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