The byways of grief: director Jim Guedo talks about Poison

Nathan Cuckow, Amber Borotsik in Poison, Wild Side Productions. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The play that opens tonight in the Roxy Performance Series introduces audiences here to an award-winning Dutch playwright whose reputation continues to expand in Europe and around the world in eight languages (to date).

Poison, Lot Vekemans’ austere and haunting 2009 hit (it won the Taalunie Toneelschrijfprijs Award for best new Dutch play the following year), joins a long list of plays, movies, novels, that wrap themselves around a couple’s most unthinkable, agonizing, fracturing of griefs: the loss of a child. But, says director Jim Guedo of Wild Side Productions, it stands apart, in all kinds of ways.

Playwright Lot Vekemans. Photo Merlin Daleman

He was intrigued by that. He was even drawn, he says, by the unusual way playwright has laid out the script on the page, in a graphic pattern that’s almost like poetry. “There’s very little excess verbiage and very few stage directions. But the few she gives are absolutely vital!” says Guedo, who’s followed the fortunes of the script since its 2016 New York debut. Poison has since had productions in London and Toronto. 

The last play Guedo directed in Saskatoon before he moved back to Edmonton in 2011, was an award-winning play about a couple’s grief, David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, in a Persephone Theatre production. “It’s a great play,” says Guedo, “an American play on a similar terrain, which deals with the loss of a child. Very American. And the grief is very fresh….”

With Poison, a decade has elapsed since the child’s death in a traffic accident. The couple has divorced and gone separate ways, and it’s a practical matter that brings them together in a cemetery where the little boy is buried. “So, 10 years later, it’s less about the event itself and more about how you move on. One person is stuck and the other isn’t…. And the play is clever about how information is doled out.”

Guedo, who’s head of MacEwan University’s theatre department (and a former artistic director of the late Phoenix Theatre here)  casts about for a theatrical descriptive of the play’s particular style, feel, quality: “Beckett meets Ingmar Bergman,” he considers. “But she’s her own theatre animal. And the sensibility is quite fascinating…. If there’s heat to it, it’s a cold fire.” The Dutch, after all, “are known for their bluntness and matter-of-factness.”

“Maybe Pinteresque is the word,” Guedo thinks. “And the translation (by Rina Vergano) honours, captures, the essence of it.”

He concedes that a stark play with such a dark heart “might be a hard sell.” But, he says, “it goes on a journey. It’s about people trying hard to move forward.” And if “hopeful” might be too sunny a word, “it ends in a better place than it started.”

Guedo’s production reunites the director with two actors he’s worked with before, in such Wild Side productions as Passion Play and The Realistic Joneses: Amber Borotsik and Nathan Cuckow.

“I’m starting to love short plays,” he laughs. “At 80 minutes, you have so much time to dig deeper.” And he has “two great actors” to do the digging with. “It’s a hard play,” he says of rehearsals that are emotionally taxing in the extreme. “The most we can manage at a time is three hours.” After that, the law of diminishing returns sets in.   

“It’s not a festive play,” he says of Poison. “But it’s an absorbing one.” Vekemans sets in a “spartan, antiseptic room, and the audience has nowhere to go, so they’re drawn into the world…. You don’t just side with one character or the other, the someone who chooses to detach or the other who stays with grief.”

“They start the play like the strangers (to each other) they now are. They’ve made choices. And gradually you can see echoes of what the relationship was….” One characters holds on to grief, wears grief as a badge of honour; the other chooses to be clinical.” 

PREVIEW

Poison

Theatre: Wild Side Productions, Roxy Performance Series

Written by: Lot Vekemans

Directed by: Jim Guedo

Starring: Amber Borotsik, Nathan Cuckow

Where: Roxy Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through March 25

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

   

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