By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“You wake up one morning and you have nothing….”
Moonlight over an eerie forest of skeleton trees, a geometry of charred trunks…. Bust, the moving and funny, audaciously strange new Matthew MacKenzie play premiering at Theatre Network, plunges us into a blasted post-apocalyptic landscape. Its four characters have, quite literally, come through “a wall of flame.”
These refugees from their former lives are in the wilderness waiting for Godot — if Godot is a way of saying insurance, re-assurance, reconnection, some sort of map into the future. We’re just outside Fort McMurray post-fire, a scant three months after that disaster and its huge losses.
And since it hasn’t been even a year since a nearby city burned, Bust comes at us from the virtually empty theatrical subset where Canadian plays actually explore the here and the now. Which is not without its risks — playing with fire, you might say — when the ground is still hot to the touch. Kudos to Theatre Network’s Bradley Moss.
I say “strange” at the outset not because the Bust characters themselves are aliens. Au contraire. These are people you recognize, aliens only to themselves. And their dialogue, liberally peppered with F-words, happens in natural, banal fragments, outbursts and asides, of varying sizes, pauses, and ellipses.
It’s the original, deadpan sense of humour at work cumulatively, skimming over a world of fear and desperation, that gives Bust its oddball comic texture, and its feel for the evasions of real life. In that, it’ll remind you a bit of American playwright Will Eno; The Realistic Joneses might be its closest theatrical sibling.
The new planet is eloquently designed and lighted by Cory Sincennes and Scott Peters respectively, to capture a haunting sense of beauty destroyed. On one side of the stage two sisters, Carmell (Louise Lambert) and Laura (Lora Brovold), clutching their Timmy Ho’s, scramble after each other through the bush on a mysterious mission, stopping to exchange barbs from time to time.
On the other side of the stage, equally mysteriously, Laura’s taciturn husband Barry (Christopher Schulz) and Carmell’s far-from taciturn ex Ty (Brandon Coffey) — are in the woods, digging a grave-sized hole as they argue about everything in their old and new lives. Everything except the grave-sized hole, that is.
What emerges from the fractious banter on both sides are the secrets, mundane and worse, of lives lived day to day, shocked into new configurations. Barry and Laura, whose house has burned down, have moved in with Carmell, who’s kicked Ty out, for reasons we later discover. These are characters who have surprised themselves in the ways they accommodate to duress, or don’t.
The sibling relationship is set forth vividly by the convincing performances from Bradley Moss’s excellent quartet of actors. Brovold’s Laura, who volunteers in an animal shelter and is, by her own declaration, “not a psychopath,” is unravelling in panic that exposes her faux chin-up positivity for what it is. What’s been going on? Bust invites you to wonder.
Lambert’s mordant, matter-of-fact Carmell, the funniest of the characters, has perfected the art of the skeptical eye-roll. Her new and absent boyfriend, dubbed Greenpeace by everyone else, “just goes around raising awareness about the effects of climate change and hoping that nobody torches his hybrid again,” she says. Lambert lands these MacKenzie lines with expert comic timing.
Barry, an unemployed mine worker played with tense gravity by Schulz, has startled himself by becoming a sort of philosopher of the woods. Much to the mystification of his ex-brother-in-law, Barry carries a stuffed two-headed chickadee around in his pocket. “I’ve become obsessed with the flora and fauna of this place.”
It’s the under-employed Ty who on the surface most approaches the good ol’ boy stereotypes, and discovers depths beneath. Coffey’s performance is pretty much definitive as the aggrieved Albertan — “I am Alberta!” — who demands to know “when did truck nuts become a bad thing?”
There’s a kind of profane poetry about this poster boy for conspicuous consumption, ever-hopeful the barrel price of oil will go up. But then there’s this: “I’m just the tip of the loser iceberg,” says Barry in a surprising burst of self-loathing and guilt that is the obverse side of heartbreak and a burning sense of grievance. “I’m just a loser, a huge fuckin’ loser,” he says. There are fuckin’ legions of us out here….”
MacKenzie’s characters live in a boom/bust town that’s been flattened by tragedy, and further scorched by the reaction of the outside world: the fire as moral payback. MacKenzie’s play isn’t about assessing that, except to note it as an additional stress fracture in the lives of the characters.
What’s really weird about Bust is that its movement toward a kind of resolution among newly reconnected families, the rediscovery of marital empathy and all that, happens in a criminally macabre situation in the blackened woods.
It’s best if I don’t tell you more about way MacKenzie’s “plot” wilfully digs itself a hole for the ending to hide in. Suffice it to say that it’s as if Martin McDonagh took up writing the kind of Canadian family plays where revealing dark secrets of the past usually tends to be the way forward. Basically, Bust blows that Canuck m.o. into smithereens, while slyly seducing us into feeling its embrace.
It gives a sentimentally harmonious ending a peculiar kind of withering and morbid irony that undercuts every sociological declaration, confession, and relationship adjustment that’s happened in the course of the play. Just when you work up a decent case of warm heart, a black comedy gets blacker, funnier, and more open-ended.
Moss’s production lets this happen, in all its strange contradictions. A strange, brave play, and a brave production that lets the bleak flag fly.
Theatre: Theatre Network
Written by: Matthew MacKenzie
Directed by: Bradley Moss
Starring: Lora Brovold, Brandon Coffey, Louise Lambert, Christopher Schulz
Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: through Feb. 26
Tickets: 780-453-2440 or theatrenetwork.ca