Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Writing about Middletown, currently running at Crow’s Theatre, is an exercise in purposeful circumspection. Written by Pulitzer-nominated and Drama Desk Award-winning playwright Will Eno, and as directed by Meg Roe, it is an unusual experience: immersive, evocative and affecting. Much detail beyond that could only spoil the experience.
Prior to being approached by the artistic director at the Shaw Festival, Tim Carroll, Ms Roe didn’t know Middletown. When she read it, she liked it right away. After some preliminary conversations, Carroll asked her to direct it. “Lucky me,” she quips. Given the intricacy of this immaculate production, it is doubtful that luck had much to do with it. Ms Roe’s talents range from acting and directing to music composition to sound design. She is also a gifted singer. Her vast skills find expression in this tightly-performed, luminous show.
Eno’s acclaimed 2010 play is an acute observation of life in a microcosmic small town that could be anywhere or everywhere. The play centres on several inhabitants of the town, and probes for significance within the seemingly mundane happenings of their lives. Middletown‘s focus is the magnitude of small moments: the infinite, the vast and the tiny. (Eno has described them as the “sometimes glancing interactions you can have with people that might potentially be lifesaving things”.) The narrative unfolds as a series of nonlinear vignettes in which ordinary residents and visitors interact in the day-to-day business of living, bookended by birth and death. Camellia Koo’s sparse set implies the chasm between deeply-felt private emotions and their muted public expression. The most prominent set pieces are two facing windows wheeled on and off stage at different moments. Their spareness is a suggestive counterpoint to the strong emotional undercurrents bubbling beneath the apparently mundane lives of neighbours John Dodge (Gray Powell), a longtime resident, and the newly-arrived Mary Swanson (Moya O’Connell). Their emerging friendship is at the centre of the action, and their chats form some of the play’s most poignant moments. The in-the-round staging allows the audience to see the interactions of the town residents from all sides, mirroring the intimacy of a small-town milieu where neighbours, police, tourists, doctors, librarians and vagrants are never far.
“Originally, we rehearsed the show over a very long period of time in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and so the show was built very slowly with lots of life-living going on while we put it together,” Ms Roe explains. For her, the play itself is “such an accurate examination of living – all the tiny, boring bits of our day-to-day that accumulate into a kind of meaning – that the time we spent working on it became a great reflection of the play itself.” This was an experience of almost mystical mundanity: “We lived and drove our kids to school and grocery shopped and built a play about life, and had injuries and small and large tragedies and big and tiny successes, and kept building the play about life, and eventually performed the play about life and then just kept living.” And returning to the show more than a year later feels like an extension of that experience, “some more living and now some more play”. “It feels very small and important, and I’m endlessly grateful for it.” Ms Roe also affirms her strong attachment to this production, as well as the “lovely team of people we have working on it”, and the cast whom she likens to the “Lamborghinis of acting”. “So good,” she enthuses . . . “I could watch them forever.”
Audiences agree. This production of Middletown played to sold-out houses and acclaim at the Shaw Festival in 2017, prior to this revival for the current Crow’s Theatre season. Ms Roe’s firm, clear-eyed direction elicits a standout ensemble performance filled with heart and humour. (It is not a spoiler to mention that the play is funny.) The language is both simple and self-aware, so it lingers . . . and the script begs to be read. When asked about how she captured the beauty of the play’s themes, texture and language, she deflects the praise: “I think the first piece of magic in any piece of theatre is that someone bought a ticket and took a seat. The second is all the good will that the players and fans bring to the table – the understanding that everyone there wants the event to succeed.” In creating a show, she aims for “openness and fluidity, not necessarily ease, but certainly exchange, where the actors have freedom and agency to bring the person they are that day to the audience there that night, and the audience has the freedom to take a little nap or cry or read the program or hang off every word, whatever moves them.” This exchange and immediacy begin before each show even starts, when the actors actually create that night’s Middletown in full view of the audience.
Ms Roe is confident that the show will mean different things to different people. They will glean from it “really, whatever they want”, based on their experiences, and filtered through their immediate preoccupations: “I think some people will feel really connected to the piece, some will be bored by it. I think there will be parts that resonate and parts that don’t.” (Indeed, a metatheatrical moment before intermission enacts this expectation.)
So Middletown is squarely about life: its minutiae and its magnitude, seen from up close by characters groping for perspective. Life that is rhythmic, understated, ordinary and finite . . . and yet somehow transcendent.
And the director’s simple hope for audience members heading home after this thought-provoking and exquisite production? “I suppose I hope they leave chatting about connection and humanity and consciousness and hope. But also, like, about where to get a drink or what time the kids have track in the morning. You know, life.”
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What: Middletown by Will Eno; A Crow’s Theatre presentation in partnership with the Shaw Festival; Directed by Meg Roe
Performed by Karl Ang, Kristopher Bowman, Fiona Byrne, Benedict Campbell, Claire Jullien, Corrine Koslo, Jeff Meadows, Peter Millard, Natasha Mumba, Moya O’Connell, Gray Powell
Who: Audiences 14 years of age and older
When: On stage until December 1, 2018; Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes (including one intermission)
Where: Streetcar Crowsnest in the Guloien Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: crowstheatre.com
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine