Beliefs, perceptions & connections in the intimate, otherworldly John

Photo by Dahlia Katz: Nora McLellan, Loretta Yu, Phillip Riccio & Nancy Beatty in John

 

Everybody knows someone named John.

The Company Theatre tells a compelling story with its Canadian premiere of Annie Baker’s John, directed by Jonathan Goad in his directorial debut, running at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre.

Entering the space, we find the set enclosed in a semi-circle with red curtains, and it’s not until Mertis (aka Kitty) (Nancy Beatty) enters to draw the curtains are we able to take it in. The revealed space is the common living room and dining area of Mertis’s B&B in Gettysburg—and we become immediately immersed in this world, almost out of time and space.

Knick knacks, dolls, stuffed animals and all manner of chachkas fill the space. Antique dolls, a miniature village, angel and animal statuettes, and the like line the shelves and tables, along with a number of lamps. Prints, and even cookie tins, adorn the walls. In the corner near the front door is a Christmas tree, covered in lights, but without decorations or a star. Twinkly lights glow throughout the two rooms; and an Eiffel Tower sits on one of the small café tables in the dining area.

Throughout the course of the action, Mertis advances the hands on the grandfather clock, as night turns into day and into night again as the days go by. Classical music plays on the miniature jukebox that sits on top of the upright piano, also operated by Mertis, who also closes and opens the curtains surrounding the space at the close and start of each act. We’re being let into this world, but on condition.

Young couple Elias (Philip Riccio) and Jenny (Loretta Yu) arrive at the B&B later than expected that night, receiving a warm welcome from Mertis, who gives them a tour. They’re surprised when the room they booked isn’t available, and their host seems edgy and vague about some leak issue, but they happily accept the upgrade to another room at no extra charge.

As the scenes unfold, we witness increasing tension between Elias and Jenny, and we learn that they’re not just on this trip to take in Gettysburg’s history and points of interest. They’re trying to fix their broken relationship. Jenny is receiving a lot of texts, which she says are from her sister, but Elias is skeptical to the point of obsessed suspicion about their true origin.

There is something strange and almost unreal about the B&B and its host. Mertis seems a quiet and introverted, but eccentric, soul; with a fondness for knick knackery, she has an ethereal, spiritual vibe about her. More than meets the eye, we find out that she has a husband, George, who we never see. Married for 13 years, it’s her second marriage.

Added to the mix is Mertis’s friend Genevieve (Nora McLellan); blind, with a gravelly voice and gruff manner. She too was married once, but left her husband in the mid-60s only to find he’d followed her and taken over her soul. Concerned she was losing her grip on reality, she checked herself into a mental institution.

Fears and sources of dread emerge as the characters share personal anecdotes. Elias has a phobia of birds. Jenny grew up thinking her dolls and stuffed animals were sentient beings—and one doll in particular haunts her memory. Even the B&B has an edge; the chachkas seeming to be watching from the dark at night, and the Christmas tree lights keep going off inexplicably. Mertis believes that the house, which served as a Union army hospital during the Civil War, has a personality of its own—and that certain rooms can be temperamental. And the second floor always seems to be cold, which makes you wonder.

Mental illness, reality and relationships are called into question—nothing is as it seems. Who or what is watching; and who is being watched? Baker leaves it to us to decide what’s real, what’s true and what’s going on.

Marvellous work from this four-hander cast. Beatty gives the soft-spoken Mertis a lovely, eerie edge. One gets the impression that the Christmas tree could be up all year round. What’s with that journal Mertis keeps? And what’s going on with George? At one point, you’re wondering if he actually exists. McLellan’s Genevieve is a delightful puzzle of kookiness, sharp observation and loving friend; at one point, she sounds like a paranoid schizophrenic—but then you think, if you think someone’s out to get you, it might actually be true. Like Mertis drawing the curtains and turning the clock, Genevieve draws us into this world—and is the only character that speaks to us directly.

Riccio’s Elias is a complex combination of uptight and neurotic, wounded and longing. At first, you think he’s being paranoid about Jenny’s communications; but as the play unfolds, you begin to wonder if he’s right to suspect. And Yu’s Jenny reveals a darker edge under that adorably spontaneous, child-like exterior. Struggling to understand where Elias is coming from, she feels abandoned and is possibly acting out as a result. Which are the lies and which are the truths? And is her anxiety about her dolls and toys the result of a guilty conscience?

Whether its origins lie in religion, family and relationship history, or a perceived connection with the universe, for each character, there’s a belief in an unseen presence watching, directing—in some cases, taking over, rewarding and punishing.

With big shouts to the design team: Shannon Lea Doyle (set/costumes), Kevin Lamotte (lighting) and Michael Laird (sound) for their outstanding work on creating this strange and spooky world.

Beliefs, perceptions and connections in the intimate, otherworldly John.

John continues at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre until February 19; online tickets and info here. Go see this.

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Interview with Vanessa Smythe on Outside the March collaboration for 100 Outside Voices

vanessa smythe
Vanessa Smythe

“Maybe a city is not just a place, but a suggestion of what we place in our hearts.” – Vanessa Smythe, 100 Outside Voices

Outside the March (OtM) asked Toronto actor/poet/spoken word artist Vanessa Smythe to compose a 100-line love letter to Toronto. The resulting piece, 100 Outside Voices, will be performed and recorded by 100 OtM Artists, each reciting one line, and unveiled in the Fall. I last saw Smythe during her very busy – and successful – summer 2015, performing her spoken word piece In Case We Disappear at the Toronto Fringe, which she took to the Edinburgh Fringe later that summer. She recently appeared in the Canadian Stage production of Domesticated back in December. I asked her about 100 Outside Voices and how she came to be involved in the project.

LWMC: Hey busy lady, congrats on this exciting commission from Outside the March. How did you come to be involved in 100 Outside Voices?

VS: Hey thanks! Yeah, Mitchell Cushman approached me and asked if I could write a 100-line poem that could double as a love letter to our city, and a bit of a manifesto for why we tell stories, especially in a site-specific way throughout Toronto. It would celebrate the 100 artists Outside the March has employed, and also be an inventive way to invite fundraisers for the campaign. Much of my poetry is about personal experience, so it was nice to look outward for this one, wonder about something bigger.

LWMC: What can you tell us about the genesis of the piece and your writing process? Any particular inspiration(s) or impetus?

VS: I’ve often come to Mitchell when I’m creating or developing new work. He acted as an ad hoc director to me for my solo show In Case We Disappear, and he’s always been very encouraging of my writing and exploring. For this one, I was intrigued, but had no idea where to start. How could I speak on behalf of everyone who lives in Toronto, who cares about it? How could I capture all of that in one poem? I felt I couldn’t possibly capture everything, and on the day I started writing it, I was actually feeling really down, really uninspired. I ended up wandering around the city, walking my favourite places, riding streetcars with no destination in mind, just getting close to the city – spending time with it, seeing if I could gaze at it, listen to it. I ended up recalling the people and memories that are borne out of the city. The things that animate and give the city its life and its breath. It became about the things we care about – how traces of that care are all over our city, and how if all of it vanished – what we’d lose. It’s not meant to speak on behalf of everyone, but is instead an offering of love to the city and the people who care about it.

LWMC: How and where it will be performed? And can you tell us about any of the actors you have onboard?

VS: 100 artists are each assigned one of the 100 lines. And they’re not just actors. Designers, writers, all of OtM’s artists. They go to their favourite place in the city, and speak the line (recording it with their phone). We stitch them all together so the poem literally becomes this 100-person offering – all of us celebrating our mutual playground.

LWMC: The big, multimedia reveal will be this Fall. When and where will folks be able to see the full piece?

VS: Outside the March tends to operate with an exciting bit of mystery. I’m not sure the details of the reveal yet. My guess is it’ll be some kind of gesture. Something that celebrates the multiple voices of our city.

LWMC: 100 Outside Voices is also a fundraiser for Outside the March – and folks can donate on the project’s Canada Helps site. Anything else we should know about 100 Outside Voices?

VS: 100-voices.com is the website for all the details. It’s funny too, since writing the poem, I’ve had more thoughts about our city, more layers that I wish I could’ve explored in the poem, which – though frustrating at times – is such a nice reminder of the uncountable parts of where we live, and how even our act of celebrating it – though never finished – makes us curious to keep learning about it, keep listening to it.

LWMC: I like to finish up with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire: What’s your favourite word?

VS: Yes. Home. Please.

LWMC: What’s your least favourite word?

VS: I like a lot of words. Maybe “your,” spelled wrong.

LWMC: What turns you on?

VS: Kindness. Being physically present. People talking about what they love. People not giving a f*ck. Spontaneity.

LWMC: What turns you off?

VS: Rudeness. Piercing, complaining voices.

LWMC: What sound or noise do you love?

VS: Computer keys being tapped really fast. My nephews laughing. Rain falling on the lake. When you’re walking through a forest and you can hear the water nearby before you see it.

LWMC: What sound or noise do you hate?

VS: People filing their nails. The sound of the dance floor on a Saturday night at 2am at a bar I used to work at. The sound would be murderous.

LWMC: What is your favourite curse word?

VS: Fuck.

LWMC: What profession other than your own would you like to pursue?

VS: I’d like to start a company that did something good, helped young people feel free, more themselves.

LWMC: What profession would you not like to do?

VS: Sell used cars. Unless it was just for a day, and I could be really bad at it.

LWMC: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

VS: Hello again, my friend. Hello.

Thanks, Vanessa!

Keep an eye out for Outside the March’s production of Vanessa Smythe’s 100 Outside Voices in Fall 2016. In the meantime, take a look at the teaser trailer: