THEATRE REVIEW: STOPHEART
Pictured: Amitai Marmorstein, Elizabeth Saunders
JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
11 MAY 2013
TORONTO - Too often, the main problem with promise is that it doesn’t add up to that oft-cited hill o’ beans until it’s been kept. And while playwright Amy Lee Lavoie has earned her niche as one of Canada’s most promising young playwrights with Summerworks’ offerings like Rabbit Rabbit and Me Happy, that promise isn’t kept in the mainstage world première of STOPHEART, her latest work. Penned during her tenure as Factory Theatre’s playwright in residence, STOPHEART opened there Thursday, the latest offering in the troubled theatre’s current stop-gap season.
Set in the town of South Porcupine, Ont., it’s a quirky little play that, despite its promise, keeps tripping over both its diminutive size and its offbeat nature like an over-eager puppy as it struggles to fill the broad expanses of the Factory’s large stage. In the beginning, one suspects, STOPHEART was intended to tell the story of the relationship between two young misfits — the morose and sexually confused Elian, played by Amitai Marmorstein, and the troubled July, played by Vivien Endicott. But through an imbalance in the writing and an utter lack of directorial vision, July is quickly reduced to a supporting player and it becomes Elian’s sad, sad story.
So, we are left with his struggle to understand his quirky, death-obsessed parents, played by Elizabeth Saunders and Martin Julien, all the while dealing with a sudden romantic obsession with July’s long-lost brother Bear, played by Garret C. Smith — an obsession he sees as some sort of same-sex version of Romeo and Juliet, with the forests of South Porcupine subbing in for the cobbled streets of old Verona.
In the world of quirky, of course, such detours are commonplace — but when the playwright suddenly veers into darker territory, inadvertently romanticizing death as a cure for teenaged angst in the process, things go badly off the rails. And where, in a perfect world, a strong director might have conspired with an novice playwright to prevent the train-wreck that ensues, Ron Jenkins is all but missing in action, despite the director’s credit he receives, failing to provide an emotional anchor for the story and ignoring even rudimentary rules of staging. In the early, establishing scenes, in which the details of the relationship between Elian and his parents and perhaps even more important, the relationship between Elian and July, are supposed to be delineated, the actors are allowed to swallow so much of Lavoie’s dialogue, instead of projecting it, that an audience is likely to be left feeling they have no choice but to make it up as they go along.
Which is a pity, for quirky dialogue — imagine Diablo Cody talking around issues instead of getting to the point of them the way she did in the much-lauded Juno — appears to be Lavoie’s strength here, and one suspects that with a much stronger hand on the directorial tiller, STOPHEART could have had a chance. As it stands, Lavoie still shows a lot of promise — but more importantly perhaps, she has to learn how to keep them all.