Sunday, June 1st, 2008
REVIEW: 7:30 Productions’ IRON
Lately I’ve come to understand why people don’t like going to the theatre. It really is a lot of effort to get yourself ready for an evening out. You usually have to find a date to go with you – more often than not somebody who isn’t a “theatre person” – and get all prepared for a couple hours of engaging with a piece of theatre you might not even like. When you see a movie, you can tune out (or make out) with the person next to you, and enjoy munching on popcorn until it’s over. But when you’re seeing a play, everything is right in front of you – there’s no escaping it. So when it’s bad, it’s really bad.
Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of mediocre plays, with very few exceptions. But even then I start nit-picking at the director’s mistakes, flaws in the script, miscast actors. I’m a critical person, and I see a lot of theatre, so sometimes it’s difficult for me to truly enjoy myself. Often it feels like work. Or I feel that I have to be enthusiastic because, hey, that’s what I do: I’m enthusiastic about the arts.
This afternoon – and I’m getting to the point now – I didn’t have to fake it. Over an hour after seeing Seven Thirty Productions’ Iron, my head is still buzzing; my hands are shaky and my mouth is dry. My forehead is tense trying to keep myself from tearing up.
And that is what good theatre should do.
Okay, you probably want to know why I liked it so much. And I’m going to tell you. First a quick plot synopsis is in order: Fay (Margo MacDonald) has been in jail for 15 years for the murder of her husband. Her first visitor in all this time is her daughter (Colleen Sutton) who has no memories of her childhood, and wants to finally get to know her mother and get some answers. Their discussions are always under the watchful eye of two prison guards (Kate Smith and Brian Stewart).
I was a little wary of the premise because it sounded like it could be a touch melodramatic. Fortunately Scottish playwright Rona Munro seems to have done her research on the intricacies of women’s prisons. She also knows a lot about people. While she focuses mostly on Fay and her daughter, all the characters are fascinating, surprising, and very well-developed. My mind snapped when the prison guards started talking about their home life in such detail; you almost forgot they had tender lives outside the prison, especially considering their harsh treatment of Fay.
Speaking of Fay, I have seen Margo in a lot of comic roles over the years. And she is very good at sparking laughter and playing caricatures. But in this role, she is pure magic. I could not take my eyes off of her. Her little nervous movements when she meets her daughter for the first time; her excitement living vicariously through her daughter’s social life; her desperation to not upset the prison guards for fear of being punished — all this done with an air of theatrical majesty. Yet she made it look so simple. She could play the character as strong and powerful, and still give her moments of being a frightened animal. This role was made for Margo. The Rideau Awards should definitely hit this one up.
Colleen was a very stage good partner for Margo. She really brought across her growing attachment for her mother. And the switch from a prim and proper business woman to a determined activist was seamless. I have seen Colleen in a few roles lately, and she does seem to just play herself sometimes (possibly the result of typecasting). Thankfully “herself” is very engaging and lovely to watch. You could see her living this character and loving every minute of it. At one point she feeds her weakened mother some pieces of chocolate, and the effect was heartbreaking.
But of course that little set-up was likely the result of some bang-on directing. John P. Kelly isn’t the type of the director who gives himself an obvious presence in his productions. There’s nothing showy about what he does. But like Elia Kazan, the man knows how to work with actors. He knows how to cast and he knows how to coach. He brought some lovely performances out both the leading ladies. And that is something to admire in a director.
He also did a great job setting up Kate and Brian as the prison guards. Such hard-hitting characters. Kate, especially, is a lovely looking person, but she was positively frightening in this role. It made me super uncomfortable watching them handle Fay — but in a good way, in a “this is making me feel something I’ve never felt before” kind of way.
The stage was set up in three parts: the waiting area at stage right, the visitors’ room at centre, and Fay’s cell at stage left – with a little garden/outdoor area downstage. The transitions were very smooth (no need for obnoxious blackouts between scenes) and there was no distracting split focus from the different areas. The set itself was designed and built by architect Ivo Valentik: WOW. Somebody hire him again. It consisted of layers of wooden pannelling with spaces in between, so nothing was hidden from you. Like the impression that you were always being watched. It was domineering, yet didn’t distract from the action onstage. Also fabulous lighting from David Magladry in the dramatic parts.
Final words? I have not seen a play this good in months. Maybe a year. The last one might have been Kafka and Son at last year’s Fringe Festival. Anyway, I walked out of Iron feeling positively buzzed. This production is tight. It’s meaningful. It will inspire you. This is the type of theatre we should be seeing in Ottawa. In fact, some of the “bigger” theatre companies should take a hint.
Have I said enough? Go see this play. It plays until Saturday.