A thought-provoking, one-act play has hit the boards of Theatre in Port and—with a two-month run ahead of it—should be required viewing for residents and tourists alike.
Translated from French, Yasmina Reza’s Art has been a hit with audiences since 1994 when it opened in Paris. In 1995 the play won Molière Awards for best author, play and production. Sean Connery produced the first British-run. Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney were in the cast.
The story revolves around a five-by-four-foot white canvas which—when the light is just right—reveals just a few diagonal lines. Dermatologist Serge (J. Sean Elliott) has recently bought the piece for 200,000 francs, sending his best friend Marc (Patric Masurkevitch) into hysterical fits of dismissive laughter, leaving the third and youngest member of this menagerie, Ivan (Jarret Wright) to mediate their growing rift. Using the ‘60s classic “Get Together” as the musical, between-scenes glue makes perfect sense while this relationship-rich drama unfolds.
Canadians who recall the purchase of Red Stripe by the National Gallery some decades ago will completely identify with Marc’s scorn for the over-priced “white shit.” But—like its crimson counterpart—it’s the reaction to the work that proves its worth.
Director Terry Belleville has fashioned a well-paced show which—at one with the script—gains momentum as it progresses. The challenge of staging the numerous asides is answered by stacking up the cast like CDs in a multi-disc player. Only the occasional departure to the cheap laugh (as Ivan and Marc are down on all fours, searching in vain for the metaphorical top of a black felt-tip pen, Marc’s line “I see you’ve lost weight” is declaimed just as his eyes align on the nearly-wed’s butt) weakens the undercurrent of insecurity and mind-games.
Being a one-act, one-set show, the designer—Stewart Simpson—had to solve the problem of depicting three apartments in the same space. His answer?—art! Conveniently, Serge’s never gets hung, which, given its price and importance, seems off; Ivan’s loud “daub” and “know-all laugh” and Marc’s ugly landscape signal the change of venue when singly revealed behind their respective curtains. The albino rhinoceros lurking on the bottom shelf of the bookcase makes a nice touch, but surely a white elephant would be more apt.
Of the three buddies, it’s Wright’s portrayal of Ivan that rises to the top. With Catherine, his unseen fiancée increasingly running his life, the stationery entrepreneur’s degenerating appearance (unrolled cuffs, then collar askew, shirt out) adds compelling reinforcement to his manic breakdown. His step-mother soliloquy—a pivotal scene—is a gem, delivered convincingly and with enough spittle and drool to fill a beer stein. Later, felled by an errant hand slap in the brief fisticuff sequence that still needs work, he seems too quick to forgive and forget; more of a Nicholson quiet-madness approach would assist this transition.
Marc is the most complex character, appearing to control the others through superiority of job (aeronautical engineer) and experience (fifteen years of moulding the taste of his adoring protégé, Serge). Masurkevitch has the scornful laugh down perfectly, but over-relies on facial expression rather than the whole body when reacting to the audacity of his charge having ideas and tastes on his own. Nonetheless, the “Read Seneca” bits are just right, as Marc tries, simultaneously, to use the philosophical tome as a tool for one-upping his rebelling love and regain authority over his quivering younger friend.
It falls to Elliot to show Serge’s metamorphosis from mentor-worshipping peon to master of himself. His performance is steady and convincing, filled with some of the best lines of the show (“I wouldn’t have forked out a fortune for a mere mortal”; “A man-of-his-time makes a contribution to the human race”), but needs to expand the range while moving from uncertainty to self-confidence. Still, the sexual ambiguity that lurks just below the surface couldn’t ask for a better champion.
When working in pairs the production moves well, but it’s the chemistry of their ensemble that soars. Unforgettable is the tantalizingly symbolic moment when olives are munched à trois. Not a word is said as the full spectrum of emotion is laid out before us.
More “art stimulates life” than “art imitates life,” anyone who has ever been pushed or pulled around by the mind games of a friend, lover or relative will delight in this show—so rich in personal experience and subtext. Much like the artist’s name of the white rectangle: Antrios. JWR