Staff Writer/Fact Checker/Editor
Then, Then is a taxing little opus to talk about. Conceptualized by Toronto playwright Kyle Capstick and performed by Messy Kween Collective, it’s a theatrical piece that I can best describe as a minimalistic overarching narrative within a narrative littered with various subplots, which vaguely tie together in such a way that reinforces a certain theme the dramatist wants us to internalize. Because it is largely open to interpretation, an approach like this usually prompts the audience to make what they wish of the presented ideas.
However, this is difficult to do when there is hardly an incentive to engage with the story and its characters. I have mixed feelings about this production, in that I appreciate its efforts to artfully craft manifestations of human sentiments familiar to all of us. And yet, I can’t bring myself to say that it’s solid, due to its convoluted storytelling that doesn’t tie up loose ends in its subplots before the climax. It doesn’t really even cement the significance of its plot points.
I’ll explain what I mean first by offering my understanding of the events as I saw them unfold: the ambient narrative seems to take the form of a game between Uncle Jack (Jamie Johnson), an aging man who fears death, and Brian (Madeleine Brown), an ebullient little boy fascinated by war planes. Jack says that he’ll permit Brian outdoor play if he can guess the planes based on the sounds they make. All the while, Jack is trying to keep him ignorant of the outside world and all its dangers, rendering this a parable of delusion contrasted with reality. This is evident in his attempts to convince Brian to hide whenever he hears thunder or plane crashes (sounds provided by Johnny Cann), insisting that he can never get hurt. Delusion is made even more apparent when Jack ensures Brian that all planes are silent, and in order to suppress his fears, he must parrot the fact he can’t hear them. The plane scene is repeated for all the characters throughout the play, serving as the reality that they are all doing their best to dismiss.
The narrative is integrated with another one about a playwright named Paul (Nicholas Surges), who is writing a story about an unbalanced couple (Michelle Lewis as Abigail and Jonathan Walls as Chris) learning what it means to fall in love, and Abigail’s mother Myriam (Karie Richards), who is making an effort to be a good mother to her. Paul isn’t so much the writer as he is an active participant, however, and eventually all the characters interact, psychoanalyzing each other through poetic questions and semicircular reasoning.
To me, the message is clear: we are all bothered by the thought of life-threatening situations, no matter how hard we tell ourselves that nothing will happen to us or to those we love. It isn’t a moral, but something we might find relatable (albeit a rather dolorous way of looking at the world). I’ll give the play credit for its focus on expression rather than exposition.
In spite of the strong visual realm we are submerged into, we struggle to pinpoint the importance of any particular dialogue delivered and events taking place because of the huge disconnect in the narrative as a whole. It is mainly due to the script’s limitations in emphasizing what’s being said. This is most noticeable in the performances of Walls, Surges and Lewis. Johnson, Brown and Richards are more compelling in their roles by contrast. Nevertheless, we can’t get invested in the characters’ conflicts and psychological development if the overall story doesn’t give us a reason to care.
Evan Harkai’s stage direction is innovative yet impractical at the same time. Since the audience can sit either on the stage or in front of it, the actors are free to move about, even using the garden space beyond the tent. Problem is, depending on where you’re sitting, you may have a hard time seeing them, as they will either be blocked by other audience members or one another.
The costumes provided by Lindsay Dagger Junkin were lovely although they confused me, as the characters were sometimes dressed in ‘30s plaid and sometimes in medieval clothing. I’ll hazard a guess and say that they are an indication of the two narratives set in their respective time periods that eventually cross over.
I feel that something like this would work a lot better if it were all separate skits sharing the same theme, just with different, self-contained relationships and circumstances. As it is, you’re better off treating it as soul poetry.
Then, Then is playing at the Majlis Art Garden on 163 Walnut Avenue until Sept. 27. For more information, visit http://www.kylecapstick.com.
photo credit: Jonathan Harvey