Life can be messy. Very messy. Many of us are damaged and lonely. Happily, there is a redemptive glimmer of hope – and it lies in the possibility of true human connection.
So suggests American playwright Jane Shepard, whose one-act plays Commencing and Subway are being performed at Theatre Inconnu to Oct. 8.
Despite being an award-winning playwright and filmmaker, Shepard isn’t exactly a household name (some may remember her movie Freak City, about a feisty woman with multiple sclerosis). Commencing and Subway – both two-handers – are snapshots of women grappling with painful personal crises at pivotal moments in their lives.
The key to making such theatre work is forging a powerful emotion connection with the audience – something more easily said than done. Happily, on Thursday night, the actors in the Theatre Inconnu double-bill succeeded. True, not everything worked perfectly; yet overall it was a quirky, oddly life-affirming evening out at the funky little Fernwood theatre.
Commencing‘s Kelli (Kathy Macovitchuk) is a single woman eagerly anticipating a blind date arranged by friends. Kelli’s a real handful in her short cocktail dress and lipstick-red heels, pouring herself generous shots of Johnny Walker. She’s funny, cynical, a touch bitter – reminiscent of the damaged Deborah Vance character in the series Hacks.
She’s thrilled when a woman delivers flowers to her apartment door. Kelli assumes they’re from her date. However, it turns out Arlin (Caroline Mackenzie), the bearer of the $30 bouquet, is the person with whom her office-mates have set her up (the likelihood of such a gender switch was a bit unbelievable for me).
Kelli is less than amused. “No offence,” she snaps at Arlin, “but I am not a lesbian.” What follows is a fractious dialogue between the two. Initially shy, Arlin soon gives as good as she gets, countering Kelli’s hypercritical banter with a history lesson on the historical ill treatment of lesbians and a juicy anecdote about a sexual encounter in a nightclub bathroom.
Ably directed by Wendy Merk, it’s funny, often engaging stuff, although at times the 1996 play seems a touch dated. The banter sometimes has a glib Neil Simon flavour (sample line: “Life is hard. We live, we die, we catch few movies,” quips Kelli). And sexual politics has changed greatly over 26 years – one senses some of the shock value which Commencing no doubt benefited from at the time has dimmed.
Macovichuk is well cast as sexy, booze-guzzling Kelli – capturing her lopsided, outsized personality. A charismatic performer, an occasional over reliance on grimaces did sometimes make her performance slightly mannered. It’s a quibble. (While we’re on the subject of quibbles, ending the play to the pair dancing to Sisters are Doin’ for Themselves seemed a touch heavy-handed .)
Much more importantly, both Macovichuk and Mackenzie caught the essentials of their characters and dug deep to deliver climatic emotional scenes (Kelli and Arlin ultimately bond and show empathy for one another after divulging reveal painful secrets about themselves).
Two promising young actors studying at the University of Victoria star in the 30-minute Subway, directed by Sydney Hunt. Sophie Groves plays Alice, a troubled lawyer out for a night on the town, while Klara Kopeinigg is Darcy, a sexually promiscuous woman desperate to escape her troubled past.
We first meet the pair in a torrid romantic grapple on a subway bench at 3 a.m. What was intended to be an anonymous one-night stand evolves into painful baring of the souls, in some ways similar to Commencing.
Once again deep dark secrets are revealed. Lawyer Alice is leading a double-life while Darcy’s libidinous party-girl path recalls Looking for Mr. Goodbar.
Koeinigg was especially convincing at portraying Darcy’s uneasy mix of conflict compassion and an irrepressible life force on a self-destructive trajectory. Like their counterparts in Commencing, both Groves and Koeinigg dug deep into the emotional core of Subway, connecting with the audience in a manner that was touching, heart-wrenching and ultimately satisfying.