July 4, 2013

By Kenneth Chisholm

Some actors can keep an intellectual wall around their roles, but for others, theatre is not always that emotionally simple. This play compellingly illustrates that truth with a challenging narrative where the actors’ roles and their personal lives intertwine to the point where differentiating each is a matter of interpretation.

In a rented theatre, a small company’s actors are rehearsing their roles under the direction of one woman who has sunk her all into the production. As the work becomes increasingly strained, their real lives and their roles begin to bleed into other as reality begins to include its own material.

Backstage dramas are a dime a dozen, but this play is a marvellously ambitious exception. Here, we get the experience of creative collaboration as a near surreal emotional mosaic where you are left to wonder for much of the story how much of the characters’ actions are their own or their play’s story’s. As such, lines are repeated as the contexts change and you are left wondering what is really happening even as the melodrama intensifies.

In service of this kind of tale, Lindsey Huebner, Samantha Megarry, and Graham Berlin have excellent chemistry as Donna, Ilona, and Lyle, respectively, as they rehearse their melodramatic lines. Just seeing the comparison of Donna’s thespian overconfidence with her lines and Ilona’s mechanical reading is a superbly concise manner to initially convey their characters and their ambitions. Although it is kept ambiguous, you can’t avoid thinking of the conflict as they try to function in the slapdash project they are trying to rationalize amongst themselves.

In that mix, Berlin’s Lyle is the perfect straight man, trying to get along with the women even while you wonder how diligently he minds the social boundaries. As you explore this professional, and possibly romantic, triangle and its possible reality, the players playfully keep you guessing throughout until the true situation crashes down around them. At that, Megarry delivers a memorably unorthodox resolution with such earnestness while Berlin brings out his character’s stunned reaction with a priceless effectiveness.

Outside the relationship, Miriam Cummings is a delight as Julie, a young director and producer with more ambitious idealism than realistic thought. As such, she flits about, more enamoured by the experience of theatre than focusing on its unglamorous realities. When Julie finally reveals her reasons for this project, your heart will go out to a woman determined to live her own way, even as she pays the price for her naivety. Even when she tries to make up for it, it seems to do more harm than good as the players struggle to compensate for their producer’s choice.

All of this climaxes in a hilarious performance as the cast desperately tries to improvise a dramatic silk purse out the sow’s ear their flighty producer gave them. It is like abstract theatre run amok as the players desperately try to create something workable with the wreckage. When the whole company finds themselves together again in the most awkward way possible, you will not help but smile as all involved try to make the good intentions work.

Finally the stagecraft beautifully fits the show as the players struggle in this blackbox theatre setting with only a jumble of props piled on stage to help them along. The bird prop is a hoot in itself as the characters try to create stirring drama with a glorified toy, only to essentially realize the basic absurdity. As it is, that is all that is needed to create the creatively desperate world the characters have subjected themselves to, much like that Julie’s ill-planned arrangements have placed them in. However, that makes the well-placed music by Declan O’Donovan and New Elders stand out all the more as a subtly beautiful aural backdrop to the chaos we see before us.

It’s an annoying stereotype for the casual audience to think that the word “challenging” means “no fun” when it comes to theatre. However, it will be that very nature of this compelling story that will keep you fascinated as the story pulls you in like a memorable theatrical puzzle box of a show. When you are allowed to figure it out, the emotional prize inside is worth the effort.

Hopegrown Productions — 2013 — Around Miss Julie