2 min

Perfect sendoff

Enthralling, hilarious performances

Credit: Xtra files

As CanStage’s production of Morris Panych’s Vigil unfolds, one gradually becomes enthralled and amazed by the strength and sheer hard work of Brent Carver’s performance.

It is a tour de force by the veteran Canadian star. By the end of the evening Carver has performed what is virtually a two-hour monologue and an enormously large number of hilariously repetitive and potentially confusing pieces of stage business.

While his almost perfect delivery of Panych’s gruesomely funny one-liners is no surprise, Carver’s gift for physical comedy comes as a revelation. Often, the play’s moments of old-fashioned slapstick are laugh-out-loud funny. Given a less nimble performer there is the potential for a chaotic disaster, but he brings it off triumphantly.

Carver’s success lies in his exquisite comic timing and discipline, but rests on the pillar of support provided by his costar Martha Henry. In many ways her performance is the equal of his, though less obviously so.

Throughout the entire course of the evening, Henry has only about 30 lines of dialogue to insert into Carver’s long monologue, while her character sits in bed making only a few surreptitious forays into the space around her. But Henry succeeds in the fiendishly difficult job of responding perfectly to Carver’s antics without upstaging him. A refined and perfectly tuned comic performance is the result.

Obviously Carver and Henry profit from being directed by Panych himself, who usually directs the premiere productions of his own work; problems associated with undisciplined productions of author-directed works don’t arise. Panych the director translates Panych the author perfectly, producing a reading of Vigil which makes both comic and dramatic sense.

Anyone reading his plays on paper gets little sense of the twisted meanings that appear on stage. One pities future English literature students taking dreary courses on Canadian drama years from now and being forced to read Panych’s plays, which will probably seem as funny as the phone book. But illustrated by performance, they become marvels of liberated humour, with the meaning on stage often being the exact opposite of what appears to be the one on the page.

CanStage has hired regular Panych collaborators, set designer Ken MacDonald and Vancouver lighting designer Alan Brodie. Their set is a Technicolor version of a German expressionist film. Jarring at first, it makes perfect sense by the end of the evening.

Like MacDonald’s set design, Vigil is a world deliberately off-kilter. It contains superficially disconnected characters, an endless supply of black-humoured one-liners, a judicious use of knock-about physical comedy and a hilarious surprise halfway through the second act. By these means, Panych prevents his audience from investing any false emotional capital in his characters until the very end of the play.

Only then does he relent by allowing one precisely calibrated moment of pathos. Immediately afterward he packs the audience off into the night, with memories of Carver and Henry dancing in their heads.

* Vigil continues at the Bluma Appel (27 Front St E) until Sat, Nov 13; call (416) 368-3110.