Book by Scott Burke, Lyrics by W. Edgar Fisher, Music by Alastair Macdonald
Theatre New Brunswick
Some years ago, I committed myself to reviewing all the theatre productions I could get to in Fredericton, and to do everything I could to encourage people to go to the theatre. I want to love any given show, and I want, as far as I can, to help others love theatre. If a show seems to me awful, I get no kick from writing zingers about how bad it was. And I don't see that doing so helps me spread the word that theatre is (or can be) something unparalleled in human experience, a way of sharing story, language, art, and music in the most powerful possible way.
I broke that rule last year at this time, and didn't write a formal review of the Theatre New Brunswick production of Kim Selody's travesty of The Hobbit. This was because I thought it was unspeakably bad, and I couldn't find much good to say about it. (Subsequently, because a number of people asked about it, I put an edited version of my notes about the production on my Web site.)
On the way home from attending TNB's opening show this year, a remounting of Artistic Director Scott Burke's Chairmaker, I decided that I had to do the same. Having spent one of the two or three worst evenings of my life in a theatre, and then having watched a large proportion of the audience leap to their feet cheering at the end of the show, I thought, "If this is theatre, I'm not competent to review it."
That may well be the case. Perhaps I've missed something important. Maybe my constitutional predilection for regarding the word "heartwarming" in the advance publicity as a warning label has something to do with it. But I think it's important to say to the people who've read my reviews over the years that, if they thought this production was appalling, they're not alone. And if they loved it, that, well, there is another view. But . . . if you enjoyed it, please stop reading. I have no interest in telling people who enjoyed something that they really shouldn't have.
Chairmaker is set in the forties, in Bass River, where the Dominion Chair Company was engaged in an enterprise that ultimately became Bass River Chairs (you remember; they used to have an outlet in the Regent Mall). Whether the fact that that's real business history is actually relevant to the show's action is an open question, though I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that the show was apparently quite successful in Parrsboro, for Ship's Company. The plot, insofar as you can call it that, is that there's a young man, scion of the company owner, who's at loose ends, trashes his father's car, and misses graduation because he's flunked math. Jimmy is sent by his father to work at the company to find out, well, "who he is." He's taken under the wing of Ed, the programmatically crusty manager of the plant, who's also our equivalent of the Stage Manager in Our Town. A local girl -- pretty, of course, and pure -- stops by the factory. Boy and Girl are put in proximity. Love occurs (sorry, there are no reasons for it; it's how things work in musicals). Girl decides that Boy should quit his job and go to Toronto with her, when she goes off to study medicine. (This is the forties. Maybe girls acted like that in the forties somewhere. Not, though, I suspect, in Bass River. And not girls who wore frocks and carried purses which they held in front of them like shields. Maybe only girls who sashayed to center stage to discuss delivering special delivery mail). Boy doesn't want to go, well, because he's, um, come to love his job. Then, offstage, in the nick of time, during the variety show which (interminably) ends the evening, he changes his mind. He sings. Boy and Girl are packed to leave. All's well.
I'm sorry, that's really all there is to it. There are no motives, no context, and virtually no character. There is some irrelevant history, though. We get lengthy recountings of that history by Ed, punctuated by clowning from two morons -- oops, that's insensitive. From two men who seem an unfortunate cross between a kind of cloned Art Carney (gene-spliced with Red Green) and "my brother Darrell, and my other brother Darrell" from the old Bob Newhart show. The clowning ranges from lame, old jokes ("I'd rather have a bottle in front o' me than a frontal lobotomy") to a badly timed, and profoundly embarrassing, farting routine. All the actors -- especially Wally MacKinnon and T. J. Tasker as Randall and Rory McNutt, the resident clowns -- move well, though their dancing leaves a good deal to be desired. Patrick Cook, as the earnest young Jimmy, shows some skill at more elaborate dance moves, but it's not clear whether we are supposed to admire his ability or laugh at the character's pretension, which is what the mugging behind him by the brothers suggest. All the actors appear to have talents which the script doesn't give them much chance to display. There isn't a lot to be done with dialogue like this: "My son had the bucolic, kept us up all night." "He never had the bucolic plague!?" "Yes, he did." Or, "Say good morning, boys." "Good morning, boys." A consequence seemed to be that everyone played in an exaggerated and stylized way that seemed intended to remind us that the dialogue wasn't supposed to sound much like human beings talking. "Gentlemen, we have a member of the fair sex among us." "Did he say 'sex'?"
Where people are placed on the stage, similarly, often seems to have not been thought about much. Regularly, Amy Ballantyne, as Nora, finds herself having to march to center stage for no particular reason. At one point while she's in the shop, Jimmy and the McNutts come in and break into song, during which she simply sits at the back of the room as though she weren't there, coming forward at the end of the number for a scene with Jimmy. People are frequently marched on and off stage arbitrarily. At one point, for instance, to get rid of the McNutt brothers for another scene, Ed sends them off "to buy a gallon of elbow grease." "When will they find out you can't buy elbow grease?" Jimmy wonders. "When they get to the store and ask for it," responds Ed, as though it were funny.
The climax of the show is an interminable amateur variety show, held as a fundraiser to "save" the local auditorium (from what, isn't clear). For the show, the chair shop is covered up and the set becomes a red proscenium curtain, alternately understood to be facing the auditorium or facing backstage. Awkward at best, the convention becomes incomprehensible as Ed and Rory peer out through the curtains, only their heads visible as though mounted, looking for the still-missing Jimmy. After the show, the curtain is suddenly discovered to be capable of rotating, as well, and snatches of various musical numbers are reprised by whoever happens to be in front of it as it turns and the five characters circle round it with it. Although an impressive technical achievement, I couldn't see how it paid off in meaning or excitement.
The convention of putting on an amateur show in the middle of a professional one is always a dangerous move, because the audience is invited to see the actors as both amateurish and at the same time as professionals, and when someone dances or sings or moves poorly and amateurishly, it's often difficult to know which you're supposed to be attending to. Did the "barbershop quartet" sing mainly in unison because the characters were poor singers or because the actors couldn't manage barbershop harmony? Is Randall McNutt telling the audience about his dentures unfunny because it's an amateur show, or is the routine just inept? Is the wandering spotlight which the character has to chase around the stage supposed to be evidence that the variety show is run by incompetents, or is it supposed to be a joke? Whose joke? Is the puppet brought out in place of the missing fourth member of the barbershop quartet so bad because the actor's not a very good puppeteer or because the character isn't? Doing things badly is a lot harder than it seems
Surprisingly, production values were lacking as well. Theatre New Brunswick usually does far better than this. The set, apparently a recreation by Denyse Karn of the original Ship's Company one, is interesting enough to look at, though the elaborate backdrop, full of chairs and equipment, is not used much; the sign overhead couldn't be read from the balcony at all. On opening night the lighting was erratic at best, poorly timed and arbitrary: it was often difficult to tell whether the narrowing of a lit area, for instance, was a deliberate choice or an accident, because there were other lighting changes that seemed quite arbitrary. And still others which seemed inconsistent in style: for example, at the end of one of Ed's songs the spot narrows down, reddens, and goes to black, though it's not the end of the scene.
I didn't know what to make of the music. The songs are repetitive, conventional, and virtually without melody, and the singers generally dutiful rather than musical. For the first half of the show I couldn't make out any of the words, because where I was sitting the speakers on either side of the stage, which broadcast the piano, bass and mandolin/guitar accompaniment, utterly drowned out the singers, whose voices seemed to be coming from some other sound system entirely. From the balcony, to which I moved after the intermission, one could understand the words better, though the miking of the singers continued to be erratic and irritating (and obvious). It appeared that the musicians had pre-recorded the music and we were hearing a recording, partly because of the disconnect in the sound systems, and partly because of the way the interplay between actions and the music often felt poorly timed (particularly in one incomprehensible scene where Ed comes out in a pirate suit and he and the McNutt boys clanked flagons, theoretically in time with the music, but in fact it felt as though the actors couldn't hear the music). But at the end, during the bows, the cast turned and indicated that something had been going on backstage, so perhaps the musicians actually were there. If so, why they couldn't have been made a part of the action and a part of the experience is hard to fathom.
I was astonished, however, by the warmth of the standing ovation offered to what I thought was a shambles. It occurs to me that perhaps I'm simply looking for a sort of theatre that this show was never intended to provide. Perhaps it's the sort of theatre that will attract audiences to TNB and put it in a position occasionally to offer the sort of theatre I'd like to see the considerable resources of the company expended on. I'm not optimistic, though.