The Cape Breton Stage Company has had many triumphs in their half dozen years of producing theatre in Sydney’s downtown core, but the two one act plays comprising the anti-Valentine themed package titled Hearts & Minds are a definite high water mark for the group.
Both plays are by island writers–In The Valley by the Margaree-raised, Halifax-based Natasha MacLellan, and ZomRomCom by the recently arrived Scott Sharplin–and both have a slightly acidic view of romance.
MacLellan’s play follows Theresa as she dives into the heady waters of speed dating. Prospective “significant others” have three minutes to make a Dragons’ Den-like pitch of their best qualities to each other–no actual conversation is permitted. One is reminded of the Warren Zevon ballad, “Nobody’s In Love This Year”, whose lyrics are couched in business terms and yeilds this great line: “No one’s invested enough of themselves/To yield to maturity/And the rate of attrition for lovers like us/Is steadily on the rise”.
As Theresa endures the fumbling pitches from an arrogant car salesman, a penny-pinching loner, an earnest, if inarticulate, tire factory worker, and semi-slacker newspaper reporter, and one unexpected bad investment from her recent past, MacLellan wittily exposes Theresa’s vulnerabilities and self-deceptions in the variations of her own pitch to her various would be suitors. The ending is inconclusive but the audience is left with the feeling that Theresa might have gained enough self-knowledge to move forward with her life.
Jenna Lahey, as Theresa, has a long wait before her first line but, with an expressive performance, the audience was in no doubt what was going through her character’s mind: hope, apprehension, terror, exhilaration, longing. When she finally began her first set of dialogue, Lahey showed her usual talent for making every line of dialogue sound fresh and heartfelt. Her comic timing could not be faulted either. And she was able to move Theresa from a bundle of insecurities to angrily facing her romantic disappointments to a hesitant resolve.
Gina DiFlavio as the emcee of the evening was all business, a Kevin O’Leary of romance, and did a lot of comedy with relatively little material.
Daniel Dobson was all oily smarm as Vince, the Lexus dealer, Maura Lea Morykot had an innocent charm as Jessica, Adam Young, as earnest Glen, showed an excellent ability to put the right comic spin on a deceptively simple line, and Matthew Boyd expertly captured Norman the reporter’s self-deprecating humour and charm.
Along with being able to convey the depth of his character’s relationship with Theresa in a single expletive (a very clever line by MacLellan), Mark Delaney’s performance as the final suitor was intelligently judged and as freshly conveyed as Lahey’s: they are a good acting team. Their scene grounded the play in a believable reality that raised the emotional stakes in a play that might have lapsed into a handful of clever skits in the hands of a lesser playwright and lesser actors. Delaney also had a chance to showcase his fine singing voice.
For a first time director (after many years as a highly valued stage manager), Ida Steeves showed a confidence and insight many more experienced directors would envy. She assembled a great cast and allowed them to discover the essence of their characters. She adroitly used the small stage of the Cape Breton Arts Cafe: it never felt cramped or visually repetitive.
The second show of the evening was ZomRomCom by Scott Sharplin which, in a short span of stage time, goes from a bickering couple at a midnight screening of Dawn of The Dead to a full-fledged zombie apocalypse. It is rare to come across a play as compact, and tightly-written as this one where almost every line gets a belly laugh from the audience.
Sam, the girl, is upset that their identifier among friends is “the couple that fights all the time”. Jesse, the boy, believes they are actually the much cooler “the couple that loves zombies”. Sharplin brilliantly and hilariously manages to make them both right but to say more would spoil the many genuinely unexpected twists and turns of his script.
And perhaps the only acting team that could have mined this script for every conceivable, or even inconceivable, laugh is the real life married couple (and real life zombie movie lovers), Erin and James F. W. Thompson, the Lunt and Fontaine of the Cape Breton theatre scene (Google it–that’s what it’s there for). That said, this is probably the most time they’ve spent together on stage that I can remember.
Erin T. has a wonderfully expressive face and physical presence: in one scene, she goes through a character shift, with her back to the audience yet, at the edge of the performing space that was the canniest piece of acting I’ve seen in a long while.
James T. is better known for his comedic stage work and his Jesse is perhaps his most accessible character: a bit of a doofus but with a core of niceness. Even when dealing with jealousy and anger, his Jesse remained likeable and sympathetic.
Together, as is to be expected, there is a comfort and a trust in the other performer that makes every line and action feel effortless and true.
Jenn Tubrett, the director, used her small stage well and kept the scene transitions quick and painless. Excuse the phrase, although it might seem a no-brainer to simply let the two Thompsons loose on stage to wreak their zombie zaniness, but it was obvious Tubrett gave this production a definite tone and pace and sense of movement. Comedy, like a horde of ravenous undead, may look like madness and chaos but, without someone a steady hand on where it’s all going, it can become tedious. This play, thanks to Tubrett and cast, was never tedious: it was brilliant.
Hearts & Minds was scheduled for a three night run, February 14, 15, and 16, at the Island Arts Cafe (part of the Cape Breton Fudge Company, in the lower level of the Smart Shop in Sydney, accessible on Prince Street). The first two nights were packed with playgoers and the final night will no doubt be the same. I doubt whether this run will exhaust the first-time, and even the repeat, audience for both plays.
The Stage Company, after a lot of hard work and dedication from dozens of its members, has earned this success and I would suggest they build on it by remounting both plays in the future (preferably at the Arts Cafe which is a comfortable, well-run venue featuring lovely coffee and snacks). I would definitely pay a return visit.
And for the record, I like fast zombies, preferably being dispatched by Mila Jovavich.