Friday, April 6, 2012
Special to TorSun
06 APR 2012
Pictured: Mark McGrinder, Sterling Jarvis, Audrey Dwyer
TORONTO - It would be naive to suggest that Canada doesn’t suffer many of the same racial tensions that hamstring our neighbours to the south but equally naive to suggest those tensions are exactly the same on both sides of the 49th parallel. And indeed, in approaching the Canadian première of Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning CLYBOURNE PARK, the artists who make up Studio 180 seem to have recognized that fact — if only to a point. In preparation for Thursday’s opening at the Berkeley Street Theatre (produced in association with Canadian Stage), they filled the theatre lobby with a display that examines the evolving Toronto real-estate market, effectively providing a Canadian context for at least half of the playwright’s vision of “a battle over race and real-estate.”
But inside the theatre itself, they aren’t so successful. In the hands of director Joel Greenberg, Norris’ work emerges as a very Canadian take on a uniquely American play — and sadly, not one that lends the work any meaningful new perspectives. In essence, what the playwright has given us here is not a single play, but rather two plays in one, set half a century apart, both set in the same home that housed Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal A Raisin In The Sun — a home that in 1959 was in the middle of a white enclave of Chicago, on the cusp of becoming predominately black. The first of Norris’ plays takes place in the days preceding events in Raisin, his second more or less in the the present day, as the neighbourhood in question emerges from the poverty in which it had been mired and begins the process of re-gentrification.
It’s a play that demands double duty from its entire cast, with everyone involved tackling roles in both halves of the play. And while Audrey Dwyer, Michael Healey, Sterling Jarvis, Jeff Lillico, Mark McGrinder, Kimwun Perehinec and Maria Ricossa all approach this theatrical double dealing with enthusiasm, they are finally, under Greenberg’s direction, not unlike a group of performers working phonetically in a foreign tongue — pitch perfect in pronunciation but undone by misplaced emphasis.
As he has demonstrated in other productions, Greenberg, for all his strengths, too often emerges as the directorial equivalent of the spouse in those ubiquitous stair-lift commercials, given to nodding enthusiastically to emphasize what someone else — in this case, the playwright — is saying, rather than trusting we’ll figure things out on our own.
In Stuff Happens, he gave us a George W. Bush just shy of a cartoon character and here, he offers performers who are not only allowed but encouraged to play sanitized caricatures of American stereotypes, when the script demands flawed characters, fearlessly and fully realized. When personalities and races collide, the playwright refuses to take sides, but Greenberg and his cast too often override him to point to what we should be feeling.
Happily, CLYBOURNE PARK still emerges as an often blackly comic and thought-provoking play as it unfolds on David Boechler’s sprawling set, and while Lillico, Healey and, McGrinder fall back on stock performances we’ve seen before, others — Ricossa, Perehinec and Jarvis — delight, particularly in a second act that frees them from a Leave It To Beaver vision of America. In the process, they provide some inkling of what CLYBOURNE PARK could have been — and, no doubt, was — in the hands of a director who embraced the fact that it’s a uniquely American tale that can’t be told from any other perspective.