Amsterdam is an ambitious new play that gets lost in its execution, on stage in Toronto
Amsterdam, by Dan McPeake, presented by new company Wilde Bunbury Theatre and presented at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, is a 50-minute one-act play that speaks about the nature of time and its ability to shift identity, and the different personas we have at different times and for different people. It’s simultaneously linear and non-linear, asking us what it would be like if time merely ceased to exist. It’s a philosophical play by a young, developing playwright, and it shows. In the end, there’s an ambitious and interesting concept here that unfortunately doesn’t quite work in the execution.
Amsterdam is a story that revolves around Sharon (Sigourney McAuley). She’s a 21-year-old woman who is captivated by the lapis lazuli stone and has a lifelong dream to go to Amsterdam. She is drifting, without a job, and wants to enroll in a Master’s art history program. She lives with her younger sister Melody (Katherine Sliwowicz), 14 and a foulmouthed anarchist (but still a virgin) and her girlfriend Kate (Eran Torabi), 28 and feeling bitchy and stagnant after seven years working in Payroll. Sharon works on her life and her family unit’s tensions in short sessions with her flighty, controlling therapist (Melanie Anthony), and all the women confide in a mysterious light that may or may not be a real entity.
The play essentially hamstrings itself with its main conceit. It organizes everything around the final reveal so that the preceding 45 minutes have to be relatively opaque, though there are a lot of hints through the repetition of statements and ideas. Sharp-eyed viewers who figure out what’s going on might wind up bored; those who need that final hint may be frustrated at the hallucinatory, random-seeming events and decisions. Ultimately, when it comes to theme, repetition can’t be a substitute for depth of symbolism.
The seeming randomness is particularly true for the contrived ease with which everything works out, partly thanks to a Therapist Ex Machina who should definitely not be licensed. Again, this is seemingly by design, as how much of the play is a mental construct is up for debate, but that doesn’t quite fix the issue.
While we spend a lot of time with the characters and the play is very inward-focused, it still feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface of who they are and what their motivations are beyond a general personality trait and list of the same dreams. They remain, ultimately, ciphers. They also, for the most part, don’t speak naturally (and I say this as someone who is comfortably pretentious in my own speech). The fact that the affectedness of the speech is partially necessary for the plot, again, doesn’t cover how distracting it is.
(Speaking of distraction, the space of the Red Sandcastle is particularly vulnerable to outside noise, and when audience members are allowed to enter 20 minutes into a 50-minute show, then get up and briefly talk to the booth, and others are taking pictures…it doesn’t help.)
I don’t mean to bury this well-meaning show. I’d much rather see a playwright and cast take a narrative and thematic risk like this, even if it falls short, than stagnate in something typical. The range of roles for women is commendable, and as actors, Katherine Sliwowicz and Peter Mundell make their scenes as young awkward love interests not only believable, but often downright charming.
I do think that there’s value in the ideas being explored in Amsterdam. I just think this one needs more, well…time.
- Amsterdam plays until May 20, 2018 at the Red Sandcastle Theatre (922 Queen St. E)
- Shows run Wednesday-Sunday at 8:00 PM, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM
- Tickets are $15-20, and can be purchased online or by calling the Box Office at 416-845-9411.
Photo of Sigourney McAuley provided by Dan McPeake