The Plain Janes get dizzy in Madrid: Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. A review

Michelle Diaz and Jocelyn Ahlf in Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls,

“Welcome to the edge, the verge, the ledge….” sing five agitated women who find themselves thrown together, teetering crazily, in the Act I finale of the riotous musical screwball that the Plain Janes have brought to the Varscona. 

“You’ve lost your voice, you’ve lost your will, you lose your mind. And yet it’s kind of thrilling when you step up to the line….”

Men — the pursuit of, the treachery of, the disconnect with, the abandonment by — may be the undertow of Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, the David Yazbek/ Jeffrey Lane musical inspired by Pedro Almodóvar’s indelible 1988 film comedy. But women — and their improbable resilience, kooky emotional energy, and powers of survival — are the heart of it.

And that heart is what holds Kate Ryan’s production to the ground and keeps it from levitating altogether into the ether where farces get adrenalized. The characters are big. The performances are big. The crazy plot — which sends everyone and everything careening and colliding madly through post-Franco 80s Madrid, on foot, on motorcycle, by taxi — is big. The accents are big. The colours, heck, they’re big too, in Matt Alan Currie’s hot colour-drenched cityscape backdrop and Leona Brausen’s fab ‘80s costumes.

There’s nothing pastel going on here. Desperation isn’t quiet and introverted; it spikes the gazpacho with Valium, drives like a bat out of hell, and carries a gun.

At the centre is a performance that has something focussed and intense about it, a performance that, despite the precarious footing, plants its (red) high heels on an irreducible sense of absurdity and self. 

Jocelyn Ahlf is Pepa, an actress who’s just been dumped by her lover — by voicemail. Spinning her wheels, she sets about finding the vanished Ivan to make him explain. Ahlf, lustrous-voiced in a wider variety of styles than any performer in town, memorably creates a a character who might be losing her equilibrium and possibly her mind but never her wry and rueful intelligence.

Characters accumulate. Lucia, played by Andrea House, another first-rate singer, is Ivan’s abandoned, nutso ex-wife, just out of the asylum where she’s spent the last 20 years and hot for vengeance — and for attention. Her knock-out song Invisible starts as a description of Ivan’s vanishing act and ends up a description of what happens to middle-aged women.

The other show-stopper of the evening, Model Behaviour (delivered entirely on the phone), belongs to Michelle Diaz, who delivers a hilarious comic performance as a jittery fashion model with a specialty in panic, a short attention span, and a lover who has turned out to be a terrorist. “The minute I saw the grenade belt I knew something was wrong.”

An over-produced bust on Broadway in 2010, the musical was revived in London, in a form less oppressed by big-budget set and technology. And now the Plain Janes have at it, with staging that relies on ingenuity and atmosphere: people not stuff. 

Andrea House, Madelaine Knight, Michelle Diaz, Jocelyn Ahlf, Gianna Read-Skelton in Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Every woman in Women On The Verge has, as people say of more earnest shows, a problematic relationship with men. The exasperated Marissa  (Madelaine Knight) is finding her wedding plans continually dampened by her fiancé, Ivan’s feckless son Carlos (newcomer Gabriel Gagnon). Paulina (Gianna Read-Skelton) is a feisty lawyer whose feminist manifesto principles disintegrate completely when it comes to her lover.

As the elusive serial womanizer Ivan, who seduces with his velvet voice, Vance Avery is a hoot. Ivan and son have a terrific Act II duet, The Microphone, in which the one teaches the other to make love to that indispensable objet. 

It all works like a farce, but feels like a screwball. And its particular kind of disorder just feels very different from the escalating complications of, say, an English-style farce which are all about getting found out, not finding. And there’s music: Yazbek’s sharp-eared score, from an expertly stylish onstage band led by Erik Mortimer and including a trio of seasoned Mayfield pros (Van Wilmott, Steve Hoy, Paul Lamoureux). Cindy Kerr’s choreography picks up the mambo vibe that’s in the air.

The Taxi Driver (Jason Hardwick), the show’s most consistent appreciator of chaos, sings that “it’s like living in a dream.” A dream where everything is speeded up and everything that could go haywire pretty much does. “What else could go wrong?” wonders Pepa who’s having the mother of all bad days. Except for … and then that goes wrong too.

It’s giddy, it’s fun. And it strikes a chord.


Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Theatre: Plain Jane

Created by: David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring: Jocelyn Ahlf, Andrea House, Jason Hardwick, Michelle Diaz, Vance Avery, Madelaine Knight, Gabriel Gagnon, Gianna Read-Skelton

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Feb. 24


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