March 2008

The Mansfield Project
Theatre Smith-Gilmour
Mar. 15 – Apr. 13, 2008 The Studio at Factory Theatre Toronto
"Father died on the weekend." (Josephine)
by David Fujino
A glance, a sigh, a resigned drop of the shoulders.

Such is the actor's craft — and such is Theatre Smith-Gilmour's droll approach to storytelling.

In their previous homages to Chekhov's writing — among them, their productions of Chekhov's shorts, Chekhov longs...In the Ravine, and Chekhov's Heartache — the troupe successfully delivered a series of these inventive plays, in pure actor style.

Now with Katherine Mansfield's short stories as source material, a similarly rich fictional world has been mounted onto the stage by these four equally active actors.

The play begins with a burial. Two men in black mime the flinging of earth from shovels, and almost in passing, the grieving Josephine (Claire Calnon) asks her sister, Constanzia, whether their father was properly buried.

"Was it the way father wanted it?"

The quiet Constanzia (Michelle Smith) swallows her response — some would say she 'internalizes' — and we move on.

But this small moment is a significant detail — a punctum in the sober scene.

Minutes later, in a swift jab of macabre, as father's head pops out from the black hearse to rant loudly about just how badly he's been treated, we're yanked into this weird time-out-of-joint moment, and we laugh.

As in Chekhov's world, Katherine Mansfield's focus is on life's fleeting moments; specifically, the lives of the English bourgeoisie in which a leisurely parade of funerals, breakfasts, kids at play, and boat cruises pass through. Nothing, it seems, ever happens.

Mind you, with the versatile talents of the four Smith-Gilmour actors, things definitely did happen on the stage. Through clever blocking and the smart use of their bodies, they were able to convey at once the bouncy ride of Josephine and Constanzia in the funeral hearse — or, with the assistance of offstage noises, they took us right back to our childhood fears of what lies on the other side of a creaky door.
Adam Paolozza, Claire Calnan, Dean Gilmour and Michele Smith
However, despite all this creative physical activity, the assemblage of moment-filled scenes did have its longueurs for audiences generally accustomed to following linear story lines — who dunnit? and what happens next? and how did it end? — and despite the smart energy of the LeCoq-trained troupe, the audience (and this writer was no better) frankly became fidgety at times. You do have to pay attention and remain alert to the actors' telling moments, for they pass quickly, in the wink of an eye.

It was therefore interesting (ironic?) that after spending 90 minutes engaged with Smith-Gilmour's moment-based physical theatre — where physical action dominates and spoken text is minimal — the scene I brought home with me was that of Josephine speaking to Constanzia.

It's a tender and affecting scene in which Josephine soberly sums up their situation.

She tells Constanzia that with their mother long dead, and father just buried, they are true orphans; and they have no boyfriends, for by their own admission, they never learned how to gain the attention of a boy, never mind how to hold onto it ...

The Players
Michele Smith, director, actor
Dean Gilmour, director, actor
Claire Calnon, actor
Adam Paolozza, actor
We welcome your comments and feedback
David Fujino
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