Douglas College Play Explores Art of Conversation
By Adam Tatelman, Senior Columnist
If the name Neil LaBute doesn’t ring any bells for you, then the Douglas College Theatre Department’s production of Subsequent Conversations will be a new and exciting treat. The play, directed by instructor Cheryl Swan, is a collection of five one-act plays by LaBute, one of my favourite modern playwrights.
Rather than holding to a three-act structure, LaBute cuts theatre down to a concise form that shuns exposition in favour of innuendo, sexual and otherwise. He only shows the most dramatically significant moments of his characters’ lives, allowing the audience to assess the ambiguities of backstory, location, and situation in whatever way makes the most sense at the time. As a result, we can now see five full story arcs in one show.
Obviously, this presents a challenge to the actors: when the text gives only an event with minimal context, how does one make it dramatic? This obstacle is tackled with ease by the cast, who play the scenes in the most natural way possible. The inevitable paradox of performance is that as soon as you try to “act natural,” you aren’t. Clearly the cast worked tirelessly with their director to relax into their roles until the words were not spoken but felt.
The language of LaBute is conversational rather than theatrical, so it works best when an actor isn’t “performing” it. This serves to make dramatic moments even more so, contrasting scenes like the twist ending in Bench Seat or the surreal dance club hilarity of Guy Walks into a Bar with arcs of quieter intensity such as Merge’sslow-burn reveal, Land of the Dead’sunderstated tragedy of misunderstanding, and the malice hidden in the characters of The Shape of Things.
As befits the low-key performance, the costumery and music are minimalistic. However, the set is an impressively designed abstracted rooftop view that, with some clever lighting, becomes a car interior or a noisy nightclub. Since all of the actors are always on stage, only the scene in progress is illuminated at any one time. This isolates the characters and their stories, organizing the scenes into a harmonic discord of tragicomedy and surrounding the active players with the ghostly silhouettes of a naked city. Sometimes this visual effect limits the movement of the actors, particularly when they are also confined to a make-believe vehicle in the corner of the stage. Yet the scenes themselves still work on the intimate scale that the Studio Theatre provides.