Veronica Classen designed a fabulous set at the Bain St. Michel and the device of having poetry and text messages projected on the high tech grey walls was delightful. She also dressed a cast which was supposedly sweating in the office of a tiny poetry magazine bereft of air conditioner, in seriously dark and heavy clothes … and in a Montreal heat wave only one character wore actual sandals.
The actors in Ars Poetica are a who’s who of Montreal theatre, and Noel Burton was actually terrific as the scoundrel publisher of the magazine. He delivered his overwrought lines with terrific aplomb and almost convinced us that he might have had a fling with the ingénue, delightful Elena Dunkelman. But he was just a tad long in the tooth to be playing the part, even though we were delighted that he did.
He was utterly convincing when sparring with Howard Rosenstein who gave a terrific performance as the father-lawyer persona. Rosenstein shot out lawyer jokes which fared less well. “What’s the point of being a lawyer if you can’t take other people’s property?” Not a bad line but a bit of a machete cutting daisies in this play.
Danielle Desormeaux played the part of Diane Langlois, a cliché writ large who was neither funny nor believable. This is an actress with outstanding skills and her comic timing saved some of the really awful moments in the play. We have all had our share of run- ins with heartless arts bureaucrats but some of the writing was just over the top. It was hard to believe that someone would lose their job at the Canada Council for endorsing a small poetry magazine which couldn’t come up with a strategic business plan. Paula Jean Hixon was terrific as the true believing editor of Ars Poetica and her performance was nuanced and moving.
Ultimately the comic zingers – such as: “Greenfield Park is the deep south … practically Atlanta” – were not enough to live up to the play’s promise of delivering an actual farce. The definition of a farce is that every entrance and exit must be hilarious. The play was about a poetry magazine and there was a great deal of actual poetry both spoken and projected. Perhaps that is just too wordy a topic to sustain the lightness and buffoonery necessary for farce. The wordiness slowed down the action and the blocking was actually uninteresting. A beautiful set which had everyone in tiny quarters only becomes part of the comedy when there is a lot of movement in the tiny space, think state room and the Marx brothers.
Neurosurgery is easy; comedy is hard. This is not a bad first theatrical effort by Arthur Holden at getting the laughs out, but it did not get the audience on this freezing night to generate even one loud guffaw.
Ars Poetica, by Arthur Holden, runs Tuesday to Feb. 12 at Le Bain St. Michel, 5300 St. Dominique St. Tickets cost $10 to $20. Sunday matinee on Jan. 22 is pay-what-you-can.