My wife and I went to see the show called “The Wedding Party” at the National Arts Centre this past weekend, and I absolutely loved it. It made me fall in love with professional plays again.
Now you may be thinking, what’s not to love? But I confess that I have a bit of a love / hate relationship with the NAC when it comes to plays. Almost every play that I have seen at the NAC, not a huge number admittedly, have been pretty damn good. And all of them were well-acted. The hate part comes from the fundamental challenge that the artistic director faces each year in selecting plays. An interview a few years ago with one of the new appointees noted that they had to choose between material that was easily accessible to all audiences – almost commercial pablum in some cases – or more culturally risky, artistically challenging, creatively provocative offerings. Most of the ADs opt for the second type, and much of their subscriber base would agree, relegating commercial pablum to “lesser theatres” for the masses, i.e. not appropriate for the, sniff, NAC theatre. Or was that NAC thEATre, with a lilt in the middle and a thrust upwards of the nose?
During the interview, the AD referred to the first type, the commercial pablum, with the example of the play Salt Water Moon by David French. It was an interesting reference because it was one of the plays I had seen there and absolutely LOVED. Yet, every year since then, I review the list of upcoming plays and generally yawn. I’m sure they’re well-acted, but they don’t interest me. Often there’s a Shakespearean era, classical style play. Good but not my favorite style. Historical? I have little interest in a playwright’s view of the relationship between a Prime Minister and his maid, for instance, or the culturally sensitive overview of an minority group’s treatment during the late 1800s. I’m willing to read an article about it, or deal with similar issues at work, but it’s not what I’m looking for in the way of entertainment, preferring lighter fare for a night out. Partly as I often find the nuancing superficial and exploitative, and I’ve seen more provocative insightful pieces in print. But I digress.
Instead, my wife and I often opt for the Ottawa Little Theatre, a play at Centrepointe or Kanata, or more likely still, NAC pop orchestra outings. The plays at OLT are good, and out of 8 or 9 plays in a year, we normally like at least four for acting and script, another two for either one, another one or so for being “okay”, and two that might be simply so-so.
Still, every year I check the NAC English Theatre series announcements, and just about every year I pass. Some are okay sounding, but when you add in the cost, the time commitment for a rare night out, babysitter, etc., “okay” isn’t enough to get me over the purchase hump. Then I saw the description of the Wedding Party:
What do estranged twins, Moldovan circus performers, a Bernese Mountain Dog and several bottles of expensive champagne have in common? In The Wedding Party, the answer is nothing . . . and everything! Save the date for this wild romp through that most stressful and bizarre of rituals – the joyous, hellish and often alcohol-fuelled post-wedding reception. This comedic tour-de-force features regulars from the Stratford and Shaw festivals.
Careening between a shambolic war of compliments, fraying nerves and a mind-blowing, character-swapping cast of dozens, The Wedding Party will have you entirely complicit in the chaos!
If you ignore the normal hyperbole of descriptions, the underlying premise is a “slice of normal life” with something most audiences can relate to – a wedding reception. I find the dynamics of wedding organizing fascinating, from our wedding planning experience all the way through to other people’s weddings we’ve attended or others we just heard about from friends. I was in.
I didn’t quite know what the extra description was all about, but it seemed simple enough. I even liked the setup at the theatre with signs welcoming you to the wedding of Sherry and Jack, and signs directing you to the right (friends/family of the groom) or left (friends/family of the bride). Cute touch. The stage was set up for what looked like a nice open area, kind of like a sitting area just outside a reception hall, etc. Then the play started and a magician came out talking about cheesy disappearing acts and sending people back to the Garden of Eden. WTF? Was I tricked? Was this some whackadoodle of a show?
No, it’s fine. That little vignette disappears, being left unexplained at the time, and the main play starts. You mean a few key characters … the mother of the bride initially, as well as the wedding planner. Guess what, there’s a bit of tension in the air as it becomes clear Sherry’s family is not that well-off and Jack’s family is loaded. As such, Mama of the bride is feeling a bit out of place against a wedding that in her estimate must have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (including a last minute addition of a 100 person choir!). You shortly thereafter meet the parents of the groom, and while the mother of the groom is trying to keep things a bit on an even keel, the father of the groom thinks the bride and her family are all embarrassments. Tension mounts, and there’s lots of humour as it goes.
Then you start to notice something, if you haven’t already. A new character comes in, and it’s the same actor playing one of the other parts. Oh, I get it, the actors play multiple parts, cool. Absolutely they do…most have 3 or more roles over the course of the play, making it seem like the actual cast of 6 is more like 15 or more. I know that this approach is quite common, but I’ve usually only seen it with one-actor playing all the roles or one or two doing it, never all of them playing 3 each. My limited experience, I guess.
Three of the combinations are awesome. Tom Rooney plays both the father of the groom, Jack, and his estranged twin brother Tony. Obviously, they can’t be on stage at the same time (or can they?) and there is an in-joke about the photographer wanting a photo of the two brothers together, which Jack responds to dryly with “That’s probably not going to happen”. I don’t want to spoil things, but they do find a way to interact, and it is way better than anything I would have expected.
Equally, Moya O’Connell plays the mother of the groom, and Jack’s wife, plus a “much younger” friend of her son, Alice, who serves as “emcee” for the party. At one point, she complains to another character that she’s upset that her husband called her Alice by mistake, and the “in joke” / meta response is that “Well, in his defense, you do look a lot alike”. The funny thing is that at first I didn’t even realize it was her. Alice is 20 years younger, at least, with glasses, accent, and different hair. She was awesome. It’s funny though, I kept thinking she looked familiar and that couldn’t be because I haven’t seen anything for her to have been in lately. I ran through the list of screen credits too, and missed one – she was in a single episode of the TV show Andromeda that I binge-watched last year. IMDB helped me figure it out, so yes, she did look familiar.
The third one though is a bit “different”. Jason Cadieux plays an uncle of the bride, lawyer for the groom’s company, and get ready for it, grandmother of the bride. Edna is a sparkplug. Think Sophia from Golden Girls with another foot of height, another 100 pounds of heft, hairy chest, a raspy voice, and nowhere near the good health. He was flat-out awesome.
The play continues on with tension between the families over money, alcohol consumption, and control over the look and feel of the wedding reception, and tension within each of the families (Sherry didn’t want her mom to make a speech, Jack’s dealing with the estranged brother and some marital bumps with his wife). All are source for humour, as long as you don’t have to live it. It’s a train wreck of a wedding reception where all of the things that can go wrong emotionally do go off the rails. If you don’t recognize at least a few of the characters from past weddings you have been at, you weren’t paying attention!
I confess there are a couple of scenes that don’t work. One is the magic trick at the start. There’s a reason for it, but it’s not much of a payoff. Equally, a scene involving Kristen Thomas as the playwright, mother of the bride, and a dog where she’s making a speech as the dog and another where she’s talking like she’s the mother of the bride but wearing the dog setup kind of make no sense. But she’s the playwright, hard to argue she has it wrong. And finally a scene where an interaction between two characters ends, one leaves and exits the play, and the other is more or less just left hanging out on the stage, with no “resolution” to his storyline. Not enough to not enjoy the play, but more that it seemed like those scenes still need some tweaking even though it was workshopped repeatedly when they wrote it.
I laughed my ass off at numerous points, something I rarely experience in a play. And my wife and I both agreed it’s the best play we’ve seen in years. I spoke earlier today to a friend who was also at the show and her reaction was “meh”. She liked the acting, and Edna in particular, but the first half didn’t do it for her, and she didn’t find some roles that compelling. Those were ones that were awesome to me, partly as I know people who act exactly like that! 🙂 I had a blast, but art is always subjective.
I just hope the NAC series offers more pablum for the plebes like me in the future.