Every prop and set piece for Ground Zero Theatre’s production of Reasons to be Pretty was pale white. The pages of books and menus were blank; the chairs and tables a simple, expressionless design; the quilt on the bed was devoid of decoration.
The play is more about language than appearances. Greg (Patrick MacEachern) tries to say something nice and instead says something cruel. Silver-tongued Kent (Tyrell Crews) flatters his wife Carly (Julie Orton) to resolve an argument. Stephanie (Jamie Konchak) hides her vulnerability behind a veil of confrontational vulgarity. She expresses her own hurt feelings through a string of barbs directed at Greg — later confessing none of what she said was true. Kent uses his sugary mouth to cover up a steamy affair. He later drops the façade of camaraderie with Greg, and spills an onslaught of castrating words. And in a painfully tender closing scene, words mask and yet reveal regret and deeply felt affection.
Reasons to be Pretty is about how language, beautiful and ugly, can deceive us. Greg sincerely loves his girlfriend Stephanie. Yet one unintended hurtful remark stings her so much that she dumps him. Word of his nasty comment spreads and Greg becomes loathed by all. Kent, on the other hand, is a cheating piece of shit who intentionally mocks Carly’s figure behind her back — yet he is adored by all because his tongue is coated with honey. Make sure your words are pretty and you will be loved, rightfully or not.
But one hair-raising, expertly executed fight scene demonstrates the emptiness of Kent’s words, and the strength no one thought Greg possessed. The old maxim holds true: Action does speak louder than words.
Tiny Afrocentric theatre company Ellipsis Tree Collective gave Calgary a stunning head start in the theatre season, with late August’s Ruined by Lynn Nottage. Set in a brothel deep in the Congo during the civil war, it’s the story of strong-willed owner Mama Nadi (Janelle Cooper) and her women. Mama is trying to keep her home and her girls together while the world outside falls apart. Every performance is a powerhouse, relentlessly downbeat but still emerging hopeful.
Come September, Downstage hit back almost as hard with Goodness by Michael Redhill. Another socio-political heavyweight — one that also happened to feature Simone Saunders from Ruined — but with a more contemporary slant. This meta-play, narrated by Scott Olynek (who admits to being Olynek, portraying Redhill), jumps back-and-forth in timelines between contemporary reflection, a chance interview and a historical account of a prisoner accused of genocide. Featuring a terrifying and tortured performance from Duval Lang, the play asks big questions with harrowing scenes that haunts and lingers long after the choral voices fade into the dark.
Finally, Ground Zero Theatre’s Reasons to be Pretty in November boiled the focus down to character and dialogue, with Jamie Konchak and Patrick MacEachern at the forefront. Taking a single overheard comment about a girlfriend’s attractiveness and examining every repercussion it has on the people involved, it shows how words can have many long-term consequences. Labute’s dialogue carries genuine weight, from shouting matches to whispered revelations. A near-flawless production, relevant and raw.
Downstage and Hit & Myth’s Alberta première of Michael Redhill’s Goodness explores such weighty themes as genocide, personal accountability and the place of story in our society. The play’s narrator — a playwright also named Michael Redhill — shares the story of a former prison guard, Althea, whom he meets in Europe while on his own quest to explore the atrocities the Nazis committed against his family. The play, described as a “morality tale for the modern age,” asks many questions of the audience, including whether a man who has lost the memory of his actions should still be held accountable for said actions.
One of the things that made this production particularly effective was the way in which the characters stories came alive onstage and seamlessly took over the narrative thread at various points throughout the play, jumping back and forth in time and interacting with the present-day narrators to shape the story.
The cast sang plaintive folk songs at various interludes throughout the show, representative of the various peoples that have all been subject to genocide in recent times: Jews, Africans and East Europeans. Downstage’s production of Goodness was poetic, lyrical and haunting, and it required a certain nimbleness of the audience, yet it didn’t lose sight of its message and gripping narrative.
My second pick is Alberta Theatre Projects’ The Last Dog of War, Linda Griffiths’s honest and powerful one-woman show. As Griffiths pointed out, it’s a show that goes back to the basic roots of theatre: storytelling.
In The Last Dog of War, Griffiths recounts travelling to England with her father for the final reunion of his Second World War RAF bomber squadron. Needless to say, despite Griffiths’s assertion that she didn’t want the play to become too sentimental, the reunion provides excellent fodder for a touching and humorous tale of father-daughter bonding. Griffiths’s portrayal of her somewhat cantankerous, stubborn father made me laugh and it made me cry. The play was both entertaining and moving, and it required little more than Griffiths’s excellent storytelling abilities to pull it off. Whenever a show can do that, without relying on extensive production values, I say it’s a definite winner.