Thursday, December 06, 2012

The Pursuit of Happiness - Ignorance & Tribes - Play Reviews

Ignorance - Canadian Stage at Berkeley Street Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
By The Old Trout Puppet Workshop with anonymous contributors
Runs until Dec. 15th 2012

Tribes - Barrow Street Theatre - Off-Broadway, New York City, NY - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Nina Raine, Directed by David Cromer 
Runs until Jan. 6th 2013

What if one of those Epcot Center diorama's had a sick sense of humour? Ignorance is a little show about the evolution of happiness, all the way since the caveman days, presented with some clever puppetry under the dry narration that sounds exactly like a museum presentation, but all with a clever twist. The twist is the twisted sense of humour from the folks of The Old Trout Puppet Workshop and it makes for a very sad, and sadly funny show about our human pursuit for happiness.

Using a method called Open Creation, taking in comments and suggestions from the web on their work in progress creation, The Old Trout Puppet Workshop have created a very dark, very twisted, and funny-but-awkward-because-it-is-sadly-true show that feels both slick (in a Disney way) and grounded (in a Canadian dry sense of humour way). Performed with bouncy energy (in adorable grey pajama jumpers) by Nick Di Gaetano, Viktor Lukawski, and Trevor Leigh, and wonderfully narrated by the soothing authoritative voice of Judd Palmer, Ignorance is a wonderful little show that has a morbidity that looms above the humourous tone. Parts of the storytelling could be tightened, while other moments of exploration (particularly the more modern character tales) could be slightly expanded (and milked), but at 75 minutes, the show feels right in length. Happiness is a tight play that knows its strengths and The Old Trout Puppet Workshop and its puppets and design team match it to their sickly funny story.

In Nina Raines fascinating new play Tribes, a young deaf man, Billy, who has grown up in a loving, but quirky and opinionated hearing family, finally discovers another world when he meets a young woman Sylvia, starting to go deaf herself. While he wasn't particularly unhappy with his crazy family (just as Billy's grown brother and sister both return to living at home to their aging hippie-ish parents), he begins to learn new things about himself, and the possibilities of the deaf world around him after trying to fit into the hearing world his whole life.

The Off-Broadway production, directed by David Cromer, is a brilliantly tight show in the small in-the-round Barrow Street Theatre space (in a tight set by Scott Pask), using projections (by Jeff Sugg) and sound effects (by Daniel Kluger) that often bring the audience into Billy's world space. Working with the entire theatre space, Cromer moves the play in such a fluid pacing, while giving each of the actors room to find their core characters. While there have been many cast changes, Russell Harvard (who is deaf in real life) has remained in the role of Billy, and anchors the show in a splendid and emotionally gutting performance.

The play, which is about to hit the regional theatre circuit (including being in Canadian Stage's next season), is based in the crazy-white-family genre play (which to be honest, is getting to be a little overdone), but then throws a whole different wrench with Billy, a beloved son who begins to feel the family isn't putting in as much effort to integrate Billy into the family dynamics as Billy has. While at times certain characters seem a bit too overdramatic or overdone (particularly with Billy's father, and at times with Billy's anxious brother), the core of the play is such a fascinating exploration of family dynamics that some of the superlatives can be forgiven.

At the performance I saw, Susan Pourfar as Sylvia and Mare Winningham as mother Beth gave terrifically grounded performances. It will also be interesting to see the play re-done in various stagings around the world and to see how the dynamics may change with different casts, particularly in the role of Billy.

One side note about Tribes, is that it is almost the opposite story of a storyline in the wonderful family drama Switched At Birth (on abcFamily) and if either story interests you, it's worth taking a look at the other show for a beautifully balanced look at being deaf in modern America.

Vance at

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