Mt. A alumnus does tragic take on French theatre.
Sackville has a new theatre company: Sackville Student Theatre, created by recent Mount Allison graduate Jake Planinc, who also directed the troupe’s first production, Art, by acclaimed French playwright Yazmina Reza.
The no-frills show was performed on a shoestring budget at Ducky’s Pub on Jan. 19 and 20 before a small but dedicated opening night audience. The play recounts a 15-year friendship that falls apart when Serge (played by Ben Egli) purchases a perplexing piece of modern art that prompts his best friend Marc (played by Louis Marquette) to passive-aggressively accuse him of putting on airs. For those familiar with Reza’s work, it should come as no surprise that over the next hour and a half, the insults gradually shift from the academic to the personal, with both characters losing the audience’s sympathy in the process. The cast is rounded out by Yvan, played by Sam White, who acts as a fraught intermediary between his two ungrateful friends.
While the choice of venue might not seem ideal for theatre, in the hands of Planinc and his team, including lighting/sound designer Alison Crosby and stage managers Emily Preeper and Anna Shepard, the lack of space and technical constraints were turned into assets, allowing for rapid scene changes and immersive monologues. The monologues were performed off stage on the same plain as the audience, with the actors illuminated from below by a single yellow footlight. This divide between the onstage action and the offstage monologues was an effective detail which provided the actors with more room to manoeuvre, while simultaneously drawing the audience into the characters’ barely-concealed emotional turmoil.
Art is a difficult play to stage under the best of conditions, described by Reza as being a comedy underpinned by human tragedy. In Planinic’s production, the tragic elements of the play were highlighted, as demonstrated by Egli’s understated performance as Serge, a character which could easily have been cast as a bumbling and insecure figure for comedic effect. However, Egli’s portrayal was unflinchingly calm, detached and reasoned, balancing the outsized personalities depicted by Marquette and White. Egli’s dignified approach to the role eases the audience into a false sense of sympathy that is slowly shattered as his cool demeanour reveals sociopathic undertones.
The seriousness of Planinc’s production is reflected in the way the titular piece of ‘art’ is depicted. In most versions of the play, the canvas is actually pure white, with the “shades of grey and red” gushed over by Serge as invisible to the audience as they are to Marc and Yvan.
In contrast, Planinc’s set design featured a canvas with clear lines that resembled actual paintings by abstract artists such as Kazimir Malevich, lending credibility to Serge’s claims. This subtle choice of set gave Planinc’s production a unique voice, eschewing easy laughs in favour of serious drama. However, at times, the seriousness of the production seemed out of sync with the absurd dialogue, and there were moments, such as when the characters were senselessly repeating the same lines, that could have used more emphasis on the comedic elements of the script.
This minor critique aside, Art was extremely well produced, and the engrossing performances of all three actors kept the audience on the edge of their seats. When the lights went down after Marquette’s final monologue, I personally had goosebumps. The acting was raw and the beer was cold. At the end of the day, what more can a theatregoer ask for?