By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“I’m just a piece of scenery,’ says the 15-year-old title character in Geoffrey Simon Brown’s Michael Mysterious.
In another kind of play by another kind of playwright, there would be a weight of tragic grievance or cynicism or heartbreak attached to a thought like that. But the elliptical insight of the character (and the steady, uninflected gaze in Gavin Dyer’s terrific performance) find a direct route into existential comedy in the play getting its world premiere from Edmonton’s Pyretic Productions.
Michael Mysterious, and Patrick Lundeen’s beautifully cast, crafted, and paced production, capture in an explosive, compelling, and funny way what it means to have a home, to be in a “family,” and to wonder how — and if — to accommodate. Brown, one of the country’s most intriguing theatrical experimenters, explores the interplay of teenagers and adults at close quarters, through the optic of a solitary young teen outsider who’s a mystery to everyone in the play, including himself.
When Michael’s grandmother dies, he’s unhinged in the world, utterly on his own. There’s the kid, sitting immobile under a single lamp, in a room we glimpse at the back of the stage, through the bones of another house. Then Arlene (Amber Borotsik), the mom of Michael’s erstwhile best friend Jeremy (Thomas Tunski) arrives to take him into the family home she’s struggling to create with her new boyfriend Paul (Jesse Gervais) and his teenage daughter July (Christina Nguyen).
Stephanie Bahniuk’s design, dramatically meaningful, conceives of the family house as a skeletal framework with flimsy translucent walls, perpetually unfinished: like so many things about living together, an imperfect, adjustable compromise between the individual and the collective.
Its short scenes, 35 of them numbered and named in projections like the chapters of a 19th century novel (“scene 9: the part where no one plays the piano”), cumulate into a texture of scratchy cross-hatched absurdities, hostilities, mismatched temperaments, conflicting takes on the “anything could happen” of the future. Needless to say, it’s a far cry from the idealized reverb of home and family everywhere in the modern entertainment industry. The dynamic is particularly inflammatory over the dinner table, where any remark no matter how innocuous — “so, how was everyone’s day?” — is fire starter. Which makes you wonder how on earth anyone ever digests anything en famille.
Anyhow, the characters are a sort of group portrait of “family,” in which the individual participants won’t stay put. They keep exiting the frame, chafing to break free, bursting back in resentfully. The scene in which Arlene badgers everyone into posing together wearing the decorative hats she makes, for a website photo, is a hilarious still capture of collective bleakness.
Michael, who’s a kind of opaque non-reactive surface, a mirror to reflect the needs, hopes and disappointments of everyone else, has an answer for everything he’s asked: “I don’t know.” What’s his favourite band? Does he like smoking weed? Is he an artist? Would he like a guitar? What’s his favourite song? Or “Are you, like, adopted now?”
Has the animation been sucked out of him by loss? As Dyer’s performance conveys so compellingly, he’s waiting “for something to happen,” in the weird time-freeze way anticipation feels when you count backwards down to the big blast-off and … nothing. His stories, when he’s exhorted to tell one, are inconclusive, meandering, unshaped by any sense of a climax much less an ending.
His introduction to family life (Scene 3: where Michael comes to the house”) has a kind of stringent hilarity all its own. “Michael needs a good place to be for now,” says Arlene who hasn’t warned her cohorts. “What’s up, guys?” says Paul warily, followed closely by “what’s your favourite band?” Jeremy, played to scowl-y perfection by Tunsk, objects to the loss of the spare room. “I was going to put my drums in there…. I’m sorry about your Grandma, but …. fuck!” From July it’s the welcoming “what the fuck are you doing here?”
What’s compelling about the play is the easeful way that the playwright individualizes the characters, teens and grown-ups both — in fleeting exchanges, eruptions of friction, throwaway remarks, the transparently ingratiating ways adults try to create rapport with the teenagers around them, the more straightforward darts from the teens. Arlene’s twitchy boyfriend Paul, for example, in Gervais’s very funny and astute performance, nervously struggles to negotiate between asserting himself and a frantic desire to not seem assertive. It’s a kind of dance (one step forward, two back, with apology). And he knows, at some level, he looks ridiculous, the two-step comi-tragedy of trying too hard.
Borotsik, who is a luminous presence onstage, turns in a lovely, nuanced performance as a woman who makes things at the mall, and has challenged herself to “make” a family out of the human assortment at her disposal, including the mysterious Michael.
A house full of mismatched dreams is a tumultuous place to be, as Michael Mysterious reveals, in its dark sense of humour and its anxieties. Their dreams aren’t sized quite right for any of the characters in the play; they’re either too large, like Jeremy’s, or too small, as in Arlene’s “tiny hats.”
Jeremy, amusingly, has decided to be a basketball star undeterred by the fact he doesn’t play basketball. The scene in which he earnestly reveals his capitalist plans via pre-emptive bulk buys on Amazon (“I’m never going to have to buy condiments again”) to prepare for adulthood is a comic gem, beautifully played by Tunski and Dyer.
In Nguyen’s agile performance, the quicksilver temperature changes of July (the month of summer storms, after all) come to life with convincing force. She wants to be somewhere else so she can be someone else.
For Brown’s non-generic trio of teenage characters, revelations come only when no one’s listening, or everyone’s talking about themselves, or passed out. And serious conversations happen only when they’re drunk, or high. Under those circumstances Michael even allows himself a modest dream of his own, as he wonders if he’s real. “I wish I was better at something.”
To call attention to the subtleties of a play as raucous as Michael Mysterious will seem counter-intuitive, I know. And it does make you wonder about the amazing human capacity to be a teenager and survive. But this new play is an impressively subtle look at the continuity between people looking forward and people looking back — people poised on the brink of tragedy, where possibility lives and it’s better to hold hands and not look down. It’s an exciting place to be.
Theatre: Pyretic Productions
Written by: Geoffrey Simon Brown
Directed by: Patrick Lundeen
Starring: Gavin Dyer, Christina Nguyen, Thomas Tunski, Amber Borotsik, Jesse Gervais
Where: La Cité francophone, 8627 Rue Marie-Anne Gaboury
Running: through Oct. 24