The opening night of the Elizabeth Boardmore Festival of One Act Plays is always an interesting and challenging night. Interesting for the audience, challenging for the plays themselves. The one-acts have gained a reputation as a chance for playwrights to show off their new stuff, and the opening night sets the mood for the rest of the week. If the rest of the week has any basis on this opening night, we’re in for a highly entertaining week.
The very first play of the festival was Forgive Us Our Trespasses written by Wesley J. Colford and directed by Mark Oliver. While neither is new to the theatre community, this is their first venture to the one-acts in these roles. The play told the stories of three very different people—a recently divorced teacher, a girl with an unexpected pregnancy, and a boy trying to understand faith—all told through their individual confessions and prayers to God. The structure of the play was simple: each person spoke their part of their own story; three completely separate stories. The next time they spoke, it was the next part of their story some time later. It could have gotten complicated, but it did not at all and each story flowed beautifully to its end.
The teacher, played by Ron Newcombe, had a story that took a very dark turn. Starting with trying to help a new student in school, he ends up going beyond the limits of the student-teacher relationship, breaking down to a suicide attempt. Newcombe’s range is evident in this performance. From the casualness he plays with his character in the opening to his gut-wrenching closing, it’s a clear example of his diversity and ability on stage. The second story, of the unexpected mother played by Allison Haley, was equally turn-filled, though her story was somewhat more developed. She started out not wanting a child and even joking about it, eventually changing her mind and very much wanting it, until she actually gives birth to her child only to lose it five minutes later. She takes her wrath out on God, until she realizes that she still may not have wanted the child after all. Haley’s emotional outbursts, comedic timing, and reactions stole this show and served as a great centre-piece—so to speak—to the show. The final story of a boy just discovering his faith, played by Connor Charron, severed as a lighter, yet still believable, side to the play. He thinks of God as his best friend in the beginning, simply telling him about the little events of his life that are more like big things to him. Eventually, he questions this relationship, and moves on with his life. However, when things start to go sour in his life—divorce of his parents, strains on friendships, etc.—he blames himself and his loss of faith. This story, while striking a balance with the somewhat darker stories, seems almost cliche. However, the acting itself was very well done. Charron was a delight to watch on stage and he totally nailed the “innocent, curious young boy” side of things.
There were two more roles in the play. Dave Petrie played “God”, portrayed as an always present—yet always silent—janitor, patiently listening, and sweeping up the messes of those who talked to him. The role, while mostly consisting of sitting and listening, was a very commanding and demanding one. Petrie did a spectacular job of appearing deeply interested, while not taking the focus away from the speakers. A comment from the later adjudication said it best, “If he’s not God, he should be.” The other role was that of musician. All the music was performed live by Ken Chisholm on guitar. It greatly added to the mood of the play, and set scenes up very well.
My favorite aspect of this play was the staging itself. Three rectangles of light, cast on a single chair each, in which the speaker sat with a pile of saw-dust representing their “sins”. A smaller spotlight, down centre, is where the listener sat. In my opinion, a series of wise decisions from director, Mark Oliver.
Next up was The Feast of St. Nicholas, the fourth piece in a six-part series of Cape Breton’s favorite Italian family, the Pratos. Audiences of the one-acts have become familiar with these characters over the years, and I am acquainted with this play in particular more than most, having seen it three times before. I must say, however, this was the best version of it so far.
The story falls between parts one and two of the series, so chronologically it may have confused some following the ongoing story. It dealt, primarily, with the problems of a new character, Brigid, who has difficulty reading, which is especially troubling to her as she feels inadequate to help her daughter in school. This parallels her own childhood with her best friend, Maria, to whom she still goes for help, but never reveals her secret. Rosa Prato, the grandmother of the family, has never trusted Brigid, and makes things very difficult for her, until she tells a story of her past which also parallels Brigid’s problem and the truth finally comes out. Add to all this a planned dinner, and a new baby on the way, and you have a lovely little story full of great dialogue and some of the best-developed characters the one-acts may ever see.
The reason these characters are so well developed is that the writers, Ken Chisholm and Paul MacDougall, have been writing the stories of the Prato ladies for a number of years now. Each new script delves more into each woman, making them much deeper, well-rounded characters. It’s getting to the point that I am beginning to believe that they are fully existing, real people. A large part of the credit goes to the women portraying the Pratos, as they have been doing so for as long as the characters have been around. I remember the last time these characters were critiqued, they were done as one unit, as if it was difficult to separate them. Writing now, I am finding the same difficulty. They are parts of a machine that work so well together, the result is seamless. However, there are slight differences. Rosa, the grandmother, holds nothing back—she says what she thinks as soon as she thinks it, and often comes across as… well, as a mean old lady. However, beneath that, there is a sweetness and understanding that make you want her to be your own grandmother. Josey Sobel becomes the role so amazingly, that when out of character, I cannot recognize her—the physical realization, the voice, the mannerisms, all a completely different person. Sylvia, Rosa’s daughter, plays the mediator between Rosa and the world. In this play, they came across as a great comedic team where Sylvia had to explain and excuse the words of her mother. Maura-Lea Morykot plays Sylvia, and the balance she finds as both mother and daughter is very realistic. She gets to be the “straight-man” in this particular story, a role I’ve always thought is the most important in any character-comedy. Maria, the youngest, is also the most serious one. She has dealt with a lot and faces life head-on, taking it as it is. Erin Gillis fills the role in these aspects, adding a great sense of sarcasm – perhaps her defense against what life throws at her. Brigid is the only new character, so she has the disadvantage of not being part of this tightly-knit group. However, played by Jenn Tubrett, it was hard to tell that she wasn’t there all along. She quickly established her relationships, opinions, and reactions to the other three women.
A great piece in the proposed six-part Prato series (perhaps my favorite piece thus far), Chisholm and MacDougall have a great thing going with this story, and I can’t wait to see where it goes for parts 5 and 6.
Two great plays to open up one of the most anticipated theatre events in Cape Breton. One night down, four nights to go.