Creative people have all been there. You’re in front of the piano, computer, canvas or even closet thinking “What am I going to do, write, play or wear?”
A New Brain, on stage this week at Performance Works on Granville Island, is about harnessing that creativity, facing life and getting through it — and doing it while you’re having a brain aneurism.
The play opens with that familiar sense of writer’s block. The lead, Gordon (played by Andrew Cohen), sits at the piano wondering how he’s going to hammer out a song for his freakish employer Mr Bungee, a middle-aged Krusty the Clown-type guy dressed in a frog suit.
Gordon is a composer. He wants to do Broadway. But he hates his job.
“Frogs have so much spring within them,” goes the opening number he’s trying to compose. “Jump frog. Lily pads are jump. You miss the Lily Pad. What the hell am I doing? Who am I fooling writing songs for frogs? Those nasty gnats. They’re nature’s little acrobats. I hate them more than kitty cats. [Crash boom bang on the piano.]”
In walks the play’s god-like character, a sage homeless woman asking for “change” — a Shakespearean-style fool who may be really wise or insane or both, backed by the powerful voice of Cathy Wilmot.
Gordon doesn’t have any change. But he sure would like some himself.
He goes to lunch with his best friend and meets a server who loves the show so much. Then he passes out. Change isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.
“A New Brain is about the struggle to make your dreams come true when life throws you a curve ball and you have to deal with the devastation,” says director Mike Mackenzie.
One would expect a play about a brain tumour to be dark and full of sadness and pain over the loss of one’s ability to think. But this play manages to balance serious worry over Gordon’s welfare with the surreal weirdness that comes from his imagination of his own illness. It pokes fun at Gordon’s stubborn nature while holding on to the tragedy and fleeting nature of life’s dilemmas.
The true joy of this show comes from the loosely autobiographical songs by the composer William Finn.
“I don’t know if it’s really all about seeing as much as it is about hearing,” Cohen says of the musical which features 36 Broadway-style songs in 90 minutes, “because you’re going to be hearing some amazing music that is a joy to listen to and to sing.”
It may be about hearing, but seeing two straight men play a loving gay couple struggling with illness also touches the heart in indescribable ways.
The final number even had many of the cast on the verge of tears in rehearsal as I sat and watched, wiping tears from my own face.
The incredible ensemble cast makes up a quirky set of characters surrounding Gordon.
“You’re going to see absurd humour,” says Tyson Coady, who plays Gordon’s boyfriend Roger. “You’re going to see a lot of heart and a lot of relationships between friends and family, coworkers, and how they all deal with a near experience for someone who is very close to them.”
When it comes down to it, this story may have the romance of two gay men at the heart of it. But it’s a story anyone can relate to.
“It’s just two people who love each other and want to commit themselves to each other whatever gender they are,” says Cohen.
“It’s very interesting and exciting to explore that different dimension of embodying a character and having to explore different aspects of yourself to try and portray them truthfully,” adds Coady.
Staged by the Pipedream Theatre Project, you would hardly know this is actually an amateur theatre company. The company brings musical theatre to those who may have limited experience with the genre. And for those of you who already love it, you’re in for a treat.