One Little Goat brings absurdist theatre to the Tarragon Extraspace in Toronto
Music Music Life Death Music — a One Little Goat production written, directed and composed by Adam Seelig and playing at the Tarragon Extraspace — describes itself as an “absurdical” about family relationships. Absurdist theatre is a funny beast, and hard to do well. Though this might seem a mutually exclusive concept, I find the best absurd theatre has a very clear rationale to its tangents, bizarre moments and repetition. Often, plays in the genre feel like absurdity for its own sake, or even a warm-up writing exercise, and this show does have those moments. Like life, its a mixed but ultimately positive experience.
DD (Jennifer Villaverde) and JJ (Richard Harte), a married couple with a teenaged son (little PP), head to the bedroom for a little midnight fun when they’re interrupted by an insistent knocking at the door. It’s DD’s mother, B (Theresa Tova), who is feeling unloved both physically and emotionally, barging in with a complete disregard for time or propriety. The rest of the play surrounds the family’s love/frustration relationship with B, and their subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to get her to leave, as she reminds them of their immigrant heritage.
Theresa Tova owns the stage and acts the hell out of her overbearing matriarch role. Her ability to string out an exit or steamroll her family’s objections seems entirely justified by her magnetic presence. Vocally, she’s a powerhouse, and not just in song; in one moment, her daughter snaps and begins repeating her mother’s last words of advice back to her, over and over, more and more intensely until a fever pitch is reached and she finally cuts off. Tova’s chillingly quiet, throaty and butter-smooth one-word response to this showy display made me bark out an audible laugh.
I also enjoyed the way Sierra Holder played the teenaged PP with a genuine sweetness and vulnerability; it was a far cry from the “grumpy” phase his parents say he’s going through, and I wanted to know more about him. His confused but loving reactions to his grandmother provided a much-needed balance to B’s image as a harridan who mostly annoyed her family to distraction.
The show is “stuffed” with cute ribald humour, some of which lands (an opening song about sex, another song, also about sex but this time with grandparents), but most of which has diminishing returns (naming a character “little PP” and repeating the name over and over).
Grandma is also a casual racist, which leads to some justifiably uncomfortable moments that, while topical, could be further explored; they don’t add enough to the show in the way they are addressed. There is the novelty of listening to a Jewish actress known for playing Jewish roles spout an anti-Jewish slur in lines written by a Jewish playwright. (For the record, I’m also Jewish, and was neither offended nor enlightened.)
The music is catchy and well-performed. The lyrics could be stronger to match, but I enjoyed the unique images, such as surviving a war on onions and salt. The songs themselves are spaced a little oddly, sometimes coming quickly after each other and some coming at random after extended dialogue. The onstage band starts off interacting with the actors and singing, but this device is largely abandoned after the first part of the show, which I felt was a shame; it added personality to the premise.
The actors use handheld microphones, which leads to effective visual gags but distances us from the sound. The Extraspace is small and gets overwhelmed by an amplified band. It’s not unpleasantly loud, but it swallows some of the lyrics of the songs, even if you’re sitting in the second row. Since the absurd nature of the songs results in the juxtaposition of unexpected words and ideas, our brains can’t just fill in the blanks, which means that clarity is paramount.
Tonally, the show is relatively light, which makes the couple of swings into melancholy stand out; this is characteristic of absurdist’s theatre’s mixing of the comic and tragic. This melancholy feeds two of the strongest songs in the show, first PP’s lament of “I’m not okay, but I’m okay,” then B’s closing number about death and what remains. It’s this last song that makes strides to tie the whole experience together, and made me like what I’d seen before more in retrospect.
Music Music Life Death Music is both a normal and strange family story. Life, I suppose, is absurd enough in itself.
- Music Music Life Death Music plays until June 10, 2018 at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace (30 Bridgman Ave.)
- Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 8:00 PM, with 2:30 PM Sunday matinees.
- Tickets are $20-$35 and can be purchased online, in-person at the Tarragon Box Office, or by calling 416-531-1827.
Photo of Jennifer Villaverde, Richard Harte, Theresa Tova, and Sierra Holder by Yuri Dojc Photography