Fast on the heels of a carpenter (Ben Stiller playing Roger in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, cross-reference below) who’s just been released from the funny farm, Philip, the high-end woodworker, has set up shop in Niagara—albeit posthumously.
Essential Collective Theatre’s artistic director, Stephanie Jones, has taken on the twin tasks of adapting Joan Barfoot’s novel, Luck, for the stage and starring as Nora. Having seen Jones so successfully handle these dual assignments for her own original material (2009’s She’s Mine, cross-reference below), perhaps expectations were set too high even as the lights were lowered.
Key to both novel and play is visualization of absent art—one’s imagination must literally connect the dots. Living in a small town, Nora’s bold creations draw contempt and fear from the conservative population even as their sale demonstrates acceptance and value in larger, more cosmopolitan arenas—be those actual cities or broad-minded individuals.
Necessarily, fully formed, completed work remains unseen. Bits of the process along with setting/people images flash upon a centrally placed screen, leaving the script’s lines to paint the vital picture of Nora’s huge talent resulting in various degrees of isolation. Unfortunately, when we learn that someone expressed their opinion by “leaving shit on the doorstep” or—too late—“That’s your big naked mommy up there,” the artistic shoe fails to drop. Nora comes across as a tad flighty and determined but hardly an enfant terrible with oils.
Having not read Barfoot’s book (it is now on this season’s wish-list), it’s difficult to know how successful the Portrait of the Artist as a Sudden Widow was in print.
Nonetheless, actor Jones soars through the material with customary range of emotion and great sense of timing. She is blessed with having David Frisch bring to engaging death late husband, Philip. (In one of many marvellous details that fill this production, director Monica Dufault stages the opening discovery-of-corpse with a twist of the macabre that begs for a morgue tag on the deceased’s toe laid bare.) Dead or alive, clothed or nude, Frisch makes an ideally devoted ghost, deftly interacting with lives present and past. Not as effective are his other characterizations. Family friend, art devotee Max, sports a Jewish accent that belies the frame from which it comes; undertaker Hendrik has too much Philip to convincingly morph into an unexpected suitor. Oh for bigger budgets and silicon masks!
Also appearing as two distinct personas is Emma Mackenzie Hillier. Playing the silky live-in model, Beth, Hillier readily allures, wanting just an ounce more quiet lasciviousness to stoke the fire of illicit liaisons; more than a dark wig is needed to burn into the unforgiving heat that lurks in Lynn—Philip’s first wife, thrown over for a mere painter, oh the shame!
Darla Biccum makes an affable Sophie. Also living/loving under the same roof as Nora and Beth, the efficient housekeeper goes about her chores with aplomb, but a stronger sense of employer devotion that goes far beyond “other duties to be assigned” would add further internal conflict, providing even more meat to the thick stew of characterizations.
This show can’t help but strike a chord with anyone who has seen Yasmina Reza’s Art (cross-reference below). In that marvellous study of artistic “taste,” the work in question—a large canvas, painted entirely in one shade/texture of white—takes centre stage, silently sparking the hilarity. If that undeniable presence could find its way into Luck, then Barfoot’s/Jones’ themes and special insights would ring more truly than ever before. JWR