Studio 180 is continuing to establish itself as the smartest and most necessary niche marketing theatre in the city of Toronto. I say niche because under the artistic leadership of Joel Greenberg, the theatre has grown into the kind of socially conscious organization that rises to the challenge and answers the question: how come nobody is doing that play in Toronto? It was Mr. Greenberg who stepped up to the plate and brought us Moisés Kaufman’s brilliant (and necessary), The Laramie Project as well as The Arab-Israeli Cookbook and Stuff Happens.
Although the current production of British playwright David Harrower’s award winning drama of sexual taboo, Blackbird, stumbles a bit, the trouble is not with the production values, the direction or the acting. Jessica Greenberg’s stand-out performance of Una, the young woman who was drawn into a sexual relationship with a much older man when she was only 12, is an actor of remarkable talent who only has to find the opportunity to broaden her reach over the coming years and to continue playing those challenging roles for her to one day come into her own as the very fine actor that she is and will continue to be. Equally so, Hardee T. Lineham plays the child chasing, older character of Ray with a complexity that makes the part riveting rather than repellant.
Some critics do homework before reviewing a show. They will read the script (including reviews of other productions), research the playwright’s oeuvre, etc. I don’t do any of that (including reading the program before the show starts). I purposely try to view a play knowing as little about it as possible and this includes the classics that I may very well not be familiar with for one reason or another. Tabula rasa is my approach as much as I can affect it. Just take in the experience.
Having said that, the first thing that dawned on me while listening to the opening dialog of Blackbird is that I’ve heard it before. The staccato, broken off sentences, full of interruptions and unfinished thoughts is the unmistakable attempt of a playwright to carefully re-tread the imprint of David Mamet as if he were following him through new fallen snow.
The second familiar ring in the play’s construction is that it begins to resemble Mamet’s emotionally manipulative two hander, Oleanna, which is a play that also alleges sexual abuse and also involves a woman character who provokes and drives the plot. Two male playwright’s views on a very delicate subject with Blackbird being the least hateful and less violent of the two but still problematic to my mind.
At one point – moving toward the conclusion of Harrower’s 80 minute play, the playwright seems bereft to the point that the only thing he can do is turn out the lights in order to heighten the drama and the suspense of the thing. Like some horror movie, we sit there in the dark hoping that Ray doesn’t come bounding back in the room with a gun or a butcher knife in his hand to “solve” his problem. Mercifully, the playwright resisted this temptation.
Despite the challenges imposed by the script, Greenberg has mounted the production with sensitivity and grace. Having watched his work over a number of years, now I think he should more accurately be called a directographer. Greenberg choreographs a scene as much as he directs it, with great fluidity and ease whether with a large cast or a small one as is the case here. Michael Gianfrancesco’s set serves the play equally well by way of its rectangular “staff room” ambiance, all junk strewn and littered with a well-lit hallway behind the frosted glass that insinuates a larger operation going on in the background at the beginning of the play but gradually diminishes as the drama grows to its climax.