2 min

Watery writing

Trapped in an episode of Walt Wingfield

Credit: Xtra files

Regular Toronto theatregoers know what a production of a new Canadian play can mean: authorial changes up to and beyond opening night, idiosyncratic casting of local actors, a budget for set and costumes that’s less than you paid for a new DVD player on Boxing Day, all this seen from vinyl-covered seats in alternately stuffy or drafty heritage theatre buildings.

Michel Marc Bouchard’s Written On Water at CanStage is a co-production with Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. So the extra bucks from the rich country cousins mean that Toronto audiences get to savour a finished, polished translation by Linda Gaboriau, a cast of nationally known actors and an operatic set that looks at home in the posh environs of the Bluma Appel Theatre.

Once the Regular Theatregoer has got over his or her enjoyment of Judith Bowden’s set (look – there are real pools of water under the floor boards!) and especially Ereca Hassell’s fine lighting design, and has recognized such veteran actors as David Fox, Barbara Gordon and Doris Chilcott from many previous productions, it seems an easy task to settle back and be seduced into another of Bouchard’s worlds of symbolism and metaphor.

However, the play turns out to be an uneasy mix of heightened memory speech and sitcom one-liners. Even the actors seem uneasy about how to approach it. Coming from the aggressively naturalistic Anglo-Canadian theatre tradition, but expecting to face a French-Canadian playwright’s more metaphorical version of reality, the cast has instead been presented with a fairly straightforward tale about the problems of the elderly. Director Micheline Chevrier has not found a consistently convincing way to lead them into it.

Written On Water makes an attempt to voice the anger and frustration of older people at the world around them and at the inexorable process of aging. Tart aphorisms about their physical problems, their loneliness and the carelessness with which the young treat the elderly are scattered throughout the evening. There are moments of poignancy and real emotion where the lives of the characters are presented in affecting ways. The generation gap, of particular concern to a Quebecer like Bouchard seeing the hollowing out of many rural parts of his province, is made visible on stage.

Too often though, Bouchard allows his characters to use trite Farmers’ Almanac phrases in place of dialogue and one or two scenes come close to stereotype. A male character’s problems with a cell phone veers into shtick; a female’s erotic paean to young peoples’ beauty comes close to caricature; and surely even elderly rural Quebecers know about body-piercing. At times it’s as if we’re trapped in an episode of Walt Wingfield.

* Written On Water continues at the Bluma Appel (27 Front St E) till Sat, Feb 14; call (416) 368-3110.