Culture & Conversation

Not a Gilded Cage

Don’t make the mistake of going to see the latest incarnation of David Harrower’s play Blackbird expecting a raucous night at the theatre. Harrower’s play, most recently seen in French at Theatre Prospero, is a dark and demanding tragedy with a reputation for leaving audiences fighting for breath. In this new production the harsh subject matter is well served by its cast, but the power of the script is mitigated by a lack of sharp direction, keeping us squarely in acting school territory.

An inaugural presentation by newcomers Shadowbox Productions, Blackbird tells the unhappy story of a reunion between Una (Isabel Farias) and the man who sexually abused her when she was twelve (Jock Macdonald). But this isn’t some revenge fantasy. We’re in Nabokov territory and their relationship is straight out of Lolita, a fact which has left Una confused and bewildered as to whether the relationship was abuse or a case of forbidden love.

While both playwright and company deserve kudos for tackling such daunting material, ultimately this particular version comes across as overdrawn and melodramatic. Each line is infused with gravitas and weight, stretching a ninety-minute play into something that lasted nearly two hours on opening night.

Both actors are fairly strong, which shouldn’t be a surprise: Farias is a young actress on the move while MacDonald has been working internationally for almost thirty years. Harrower wrote the text with actors in mind and included two showpiece monologues that allow each of them to strut their stuff. The duo ably handle the terse dialogue, which at times is sharply reminiscent of both Pinter and Mamet.

The actors, though, are ill-served by director Mikaela Davies who keeps them rooted in place for much of the time and allows them to wallow in all the tension that lives between the lines. The play drips with the seriousness of its own subject matter: from the first moment, these characters speak as if they know they are in a play about sexual abuse and this keeps them from every truly achieving life.

Blackbird is being performed at Les Ateliers Jean-Brilliant, one of the latest found spaces cropping up around Montreal. A former warehouse, it’s now being used as a cheap alternative theatre space. The venue serves this particular production well, as the high factory ceilings work in tandem with a set that even the characters refer to as a pig-sty on numerous occasions (its simple design comes courtesy of Jesse Orr).

In the end, audiences should be prepared for a difficult night at the theatre. This isn’t always a bad thing, but the material can be hard to watch – while looking for adjectives to describe the plot, the word “revolting” easily comes to mind. It’s a complex story that deals with an issue few would ever want to discuss: demonizing molesters is a lot easier then humanizing them and its hard not to be impressed by the bravery involved in both the writing of the play and the staging of it.

Blackbird by David Harrower plays at Les Atliers Jean Brillant, 3550 Saint-Jacques Ouest until April 22. For tickets call 514-262-7309.

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