Photo courtesy Studio 58
With Richmond’s current Gateway Theatre production sold out for the run, there is an other option: 12 minutes further away either by Skytrain or car, is Langara’s Studio 58.
While many Richmond theatre-goers have long had season tickets to both groups, I’d never been to Studio 58. Richmond has another connection to the program as Gateway’s artistic director, Jovanni Sy, coaches in the acting program at Langara, the program that feeds not just Studio 58 but Gateway and many Metro Vancouver productions with new professional actors. In its 58 years of educating actors, Langara’s Studio 58 has produced many of the faces you see on both the stages and screens of the Lower Mainland.
I’ve been to many student productions as my offspring progressed through the school system. Richmond friends have often rave about Langara College’s Studio 58 productions. As my theatre-going companion said, he’d expected something slightly above a high school production. Boy, were we wrong.
We saw the Evening B of the two night offerings running in rep at Studio 58, four different plays by new playwrights over two nights, thus the name of this annual presentation: four play.
While the quality is stellar, Program B is a night of yin and yang, bitter and sweet. An evening of gut-wrenching pathos and hearty laughter.
The first play of the evening, Matthias Falvai’s Freedom '56 introduces us to the reality of the failed 1956 Hungarian uprising. In school, as part of modern European history, we learned the generalities, the consequences for a population. Falvai shows us the personal, the realities lived in one small apartment, in one family, of a popular uprising gone wrong and brutally quashed. The theoretical and historical becomes personal and present.
I have few notes from Freedom '56 because it is so gripping. The viewer is quickly sucked into the action, the emotion. It takes a moment to understand the layout of the set, but then with a set that has to be flexible enough to work for four different plays, some flexibility in one’s imagination is required.
The play opens in Hungary, 1956, with two young adults, cousins raised together. Andras, played by Evan Rein, and Mira, played by Caitlin Volkert love each other as only close siblings can. Each represents another side of the conflict.
Michelle Morris, as Andras’s middle-aged mother, suprised me because she is older than most university drama students. The mother’s devotion to her ordinary husband turned revolutionary and love for her son and the niece she’d raised were obvious in every word and action. Given the few lines of comic relief, and they do come as a relief, Morris’s timing is flawless.
It was only much later in the night, at the reception and awards ceremony, that I discovered that middle-aged woman is in her early twenties. It’s called acting, folks.
William Edward as the father, demonstrates clearly through his dialogue why a comfortable parent and husband would risk it all to change the system. Something that’s always been hard to understand from our comfortable viewpoint.
Aiden Drummond plays the opportunistic entrepreneur with big visions, willing to trade names to the authorities for a building permit, saying he will change Hungary for the better by rebuilding it. His fianceé, Andras’s cousin Mira, is conflicted.
The last character, Halsz played by Isaac Mazur, represents those who eradicated the rebels and crushed the soul of Hungary’s intelligentsia. He represents the Soviet-back regime, in every sense.
Freedom '56 is so utterly relevant today because we feel the split second decisions that must be made; whether to stay or flee on a moment’s notice, with nothing. We learn the consequences of a moment’s hesitation, hesitation out of love, that can have brutal consequences.
In a time when the world is populated by refugees who had just such a life-altering decision to make in a moment, this play offers insight into their lives in the moment just before the bombs drop, the enemy forces invade, or the knock on the door comes—the heart-wrenching decisions that have to be made in a moment because no decision, or even a slow decision, can mean death and loss.
All the actors are utterly believable. We are enveloped by their reality.
My most visceral reaction in a play ever, happens in the aftermath of the knock on the door, when Halsz comes for the father.
After this first play of the evening ends, we are left staring off into the distance, recognizing that some characters did go on to better, or at least safer, lives.
In fact, the playwright’s grandfather, John Falvai, did escape Hungary in 1956, making his way to Nanaimo where he taught music for the rest of his life but the price he paid was leaving his wife and infant son behind.
It wasn’t until the son grew up, married and immigrated to Canada in 1998 that he saw his child, now fully adult, again. Before John died, he taught saxophone to Matthias, his young grandson, the playwright.
The surprises continue. When going out to theatre or movies, the price of snacks and beverages can be eye-watering. Not so at Studio 58. With tickets at $15, even adding treats at intermission means you can go out for an evening for less than $20.
After intermission, Ain't the Musical didn’t look too promising; the story of the Third Edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, in musical form. My tired companion warned me that he might not stay awake. It wasn’t a problem, or a possibility, with this production. It is invigorating fun.
While the audience, full of theatre people, people who appreciate the decorum expected in a performance, the belly laughs come fast and furious as the struggle between a proscriptive dictionary and a descriptive one played out on the stage. Should a dictionary tell people how to talk or describe the words that are really used in a language? France has come down firmly on the side of the former while English evolves and our dictionaries reflect that. This is the story, in words, song, dance and hilarity, of that struggle.
Philip the boss, played by Jarred Stephen Meek, was suitably stuffy and worried about making deadline to please his unseen boss who punctuates the play, rattling the scribe’s cage by phone. Later in Ain't: the Musical when Meek, as Philip, sings I Can’t Find the Words I am blown away by his fine singing voice. This man has a future.
Working away, in the basement, sight unseen is the junior dictionary editor, Anne, who really does a lot of the work. Played by Mallory James, Anne longs to be a senior editor so her contributions will be acknowledged on the opening pages of the dictionary.
Her assistant, with even less power than Anne, Betty played by Emily Jane King, longs to find an intelligent man through this job so she can marry for love and quit said job. (Spoiler alert…changes in attitude ensue.)
One absolutely stand-out performance of the evening comes from Marguerite Hanna, who from the moment she appears on stage as the cleaning woman, until the curtain falls, is utterly convincing as the uneducated, oppressed Deedee looking for dignity. Never overplayed, her colourful turns of phrase, rooted in her Cajun upbringing, prompt the crisis at the heart of the play: is ain’t a word or not? If so, what about all the other highly descriptive words in use but not in the dictionary?
I came to anticipate great things every time Deedee appeared on the stage. Hanna doesn’t disappoint, ever. What a treat. Her comedic delivery is flawless. She is always in character even as she sings and dances her way through Ain't: The Musical.
The actor who steals the show is Aidan Drummond. From the moment he steps on the stage, it is like seeing a young Mathew Broderick in The Producers. His character, Charlie, tries to suavely woo the young assistant, with obviously clumsy wordplay. The audience’s laughter resounds.
Both Drummond and Hannah’s performances would fit on the New York or London stage, such are their quality.
Drummond also offered a surprise. When he deservedly won The Sidney Risk prize for his acting, we discovered it was he who had been the opportunistic Hungarian property developer in the first play of the evening, Freedom '56. So different are those two roles and his interpretations of them that, even without disguises save for a pair of glasses in the second play, it never crosses one’s mind that these two utterly dissimilar roles are played by the same actor.
The pianist, Lindsay Warnock, opens the show when she comes out, licks her pencil then commences to play and play she does, for the entire evening. She is the entire orchestra, sitting at the piano in the back of the typing room. Her flawless work is the foundation of all the musical numbers.
The word play in Ain't: The Musical is witty throughout, as you might hope from a play about words. It is unerringly clever, hitting every verbal mark.
The music sounds assured and whisks the play along. The belly laughs come spontaneously throughout the play. Creators David Johnston and Erik Gow have a winner on their hands.
The choreography is spot on as is the dancing, with none of the visible counting you might expect in a student production. In fact, from the moment the lights dip at the start Freedom '56 until the curtain falls, figuratively speaking, at the end of the night, all thoughts of the word “student” evaporate, never to return.
These two plays run at Studio 58 only until Sunday afternoon, March 25. They are absolutely not to be missed.
Tickets for Studio 58’s four play Program B can be purchased through ticketstonight.
One bonus, if you want to see Program A as well, you receive a $5 refund if you bring in your program from the other night. Two nights of fine theatre for $25 sounds like a stellar bargain to me. This is some of the finest theatre we have on offer. It’s worth the extra 12 minutes to get there, especially when Gateway is sold out.