By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
There is a quixotic premise that underscores Listen Listen, the new Elyne Quan comedy premiering in the Teatro Live season in a Belinda Cornish production. And it will make you smile.
In a mall in 1986, in a chain bookstore with 43 other outlets elsewhere, one clerk is trying to make a difference. Montague Gray (Farren Timoteo) curates background mix-tapes for the store from “my own extensive personal collection” as a backdrop mood-enhancer to the retail experience. Yes, Montague’s passion is Muzak.
That “easy listening” is the battleground of the new Teatro comedy is in itself cheeky in the company’s “reinvention” as billed. The Teatro canon is dotted liberally with Stewart Lemoine comedies where music , mostly from the orchestral and operatic repertoires (with occasional excursions into jazz), and specified in detail in the stage directions, is a life-changer — Schubert in Shocker’s Delight and Fever Land, Verdi in Pith!, Schoenberg in The Margin of the Sky … the list goes on.
The hero of Listen Listen listens to music that is expressly designed to not listen to. He notices music to not notice. His music is memorably unmemorable and remarkably unremarkable. A man who is neither modest nor unassuming, he is fierce in defence of it.
He’s devoted to the bland with a researcher’s intensity and conviction. “‘Elevator music’ is derogatory,” sniffs Montague, bridling at the term. And he is of course right.
Montague’s obsession is vividly set forth in a bristling, physically acrobatic performance by Timoteo, an expert comic actor. He’s very funny as a character with his dander up, both fastidious and hyper-active. He bustles and dances through his world dusting books, picking up cues from the soundtrack he’s selected specially to be conducive to browsing. Montague’s fellow clerk Chuck (amusingly played byAlexander Ariate), a poli-sci grad student who calls himself an “anarchist realist,” indulges him, because (shrug) why not?.
Montague’s (not very deeply buried) inner warrior is unleashed when Jean (Nadien Chu, in zestful high-dudgeon comic form), a university English prof, goes book shopping. She demands briskly that the music be turned off; “I don’t want my mood improved by music!” Is Jean of the view that Muzak is the graveyard where the lame over-exposed parts of the pop repertoire go to die? Well, yes (and shopping in a mall if your jam is Jane Austen has ironies of its own). Does she consider Muzak, however assiduously curated, an assault on public spaces? “Torture” is the word she uses.
Montague’s obsession has come smack up against the brick wall of what turns out to be an obsession as adamantine as his own …an obsession with silence. And Montague and Jean have matching capacities for outrage.
The premise is droll, and promising. But Listen Listen loses steam in a confrontation that can only escalate, not develop, once the characters have revealed the dimensions of their respective obsessions. Both proselytize for opposing points of view that are nothing if not forcefully established. Both start mad, and get madder … about the music that’s designed to be soothing. And the actors, excellent and inventive as they are, can only repeat, more loudly (with actorly embellishments), the opposing positions of the characters, who arrive in the play fully formed. A two-hour play starts to feel a bit long.
I must add that there are funny scenes with the supporting characters. Chuck, without an obsession to call his own, is ineffectually attracted to, and continually confounded by, Tiffany, a frozen yogurt clerk (comically perky in Nikki Hulowski’s performance) who’s a jigsaw puzzle virtuoso. There’s a rom-com subplot there waiting for the development of the characters. Chuck’s efforts to assist Montague in making a decision about acting on his rage involve choosing between two stacks of books, one from the mystery section, one from the self-help table. Chuck the vague anarchist is intriguing, but a bit too sketchy to be really funny.
Both Ariate and Hulowski, be-wigged by costume designer Leona Brausen, have the fun of playing all the other characters. The former is, for one, the callow new bookshop manager whose main concern is covering his butt. Hulowski plays all the obstructionist receptionists (sorry, “executive assistants”) in Montague’s disastrous venture into the labyrinthine corporate headquarters to meet the big boss. The apocalyptic on Timoteo’s face as the ‘elevator’ version of Girl From Ipanema goes on the fritz is a keeper.
Chantel Fortin’s stylized design has an insight into the disorienting everywhere-nowhere world of malls, where the characters are always forgetting which way to exit, and the clock suspended in the air is stopped. It’s lighted with lurid ice-cream-coloured enthusiasm by Narda McCarroll.
Verbal wit isn’t really the thing for the characters of Listen Listen; the fun is in the conviction of the performances. But the play is dotted here and there with comically non-prophetic asides about the future, from the standpoint of 1986. The boss’s complacent line about publishing and books being “an incredible stable market” got a round of audience laughter.
He rolls his eyes: how are people going to acquire books if not in bookstores? “The mail?” he jokes. The joke’s on us.
Theatre: Teatro Live
Written by: Elyne Quan
Directed by: Belinda Cornish
Starring: Farren Timoteo, Nadien Chu, Alex Ariate, Nikki Hulowski
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: through Jun 11