My review of Globe Theatre’s Mesa

Here’s my review of Globe Theatre‘s latest mainstage production, Mesa. This is the script I’ve sent to CBC. Check against delivery today at 4:13 p.m. on the Afternoon Edition.

Globe Theatre’s lastest mainstage production is Mesa, by Calgary writer Doug Curtis. It’s a play that takes the audience along on a road trip from Calgary to Mesa, Arizona. Edward Willett took the journey at the opening night performance last night and joins me now.

Since we’ve still got snow and ice on the ground, Ed, a trip to Mesa sounds pretty appealing. How does the road trip in the play come about?

Well, it’s s trip that one of the characters, Bud, played by Sheldon Davis, has been making every year since 1967, when he retired from banking. That year he and his late wife began spending their winters in the Citrus Gardens trailer park.

In the play, which is set in 1998–the date is pinpointed by a reference to Senator John Glenn’s return to space, as the oldest astronaut in history, aboard the space shuttle Discovery–for the first time Bud, who’s now 93, isn’t driving himself: instead, he’s being chauffeured by his grandson-in-law, Paul, played by Curt McKinstry, who’s in his mid-30s.

Sounds like the set-up for a little intergenerational conflict.

Exactly. A 93-year-old man who’s been driving the same route to the same location for 30 years is not inclined to change the way he’s always done things along the way. Paul, on the other hand, who’s an aspiring writer, has very romantic notions about the journey. He wants to stop and look at everything, reflect on the tragedies and triumphs of how the American West was settled, soak up the atmosphere, etc., etc. Bud just wants to get to the next Motel 6 and eat at Denny’s–or better yet, Shoney’s.

So, yes, there’s some friction between them. You could say Paul is looking to find himself in the wide-open spaces, and Bud found himself a long time ago and just wants to get through those wide-open spaces to be with his dwindling circle of friends in Citrus Gardens, to get up and tell a few jokes and sing a few songs at the Saturday night dance. He knows his life is winding down and he wants to spend what’s left of it doing what he wants. It’s something Paul comes to understand as the play progresses, and in the end he does find out something about himself by coming to understand Bud better. In other words, alongside the actual road trip, there’s a bit of a metaphorical road trip from youth to age that Bud has already made and Paul is embarking on.

All of which makes it sound just a little dank and depressing, which it isn’t, at all. It has its bittersweet and poignant moments, but in general, it’s very funny from start to finish.

Tell me about the cast, and the performances. Are there just the two actors?

Not the way director Joey Tremblay has decided to stage it. Obviously Bud and Paul run into various characters along the way (not QUITE literally, although Bud’s tendency to issue vague directions at the last possible moment brings them close to disaster a couple of times, and one unfortunate creature does meet its demise beneath their wheels). In the script, the suggestion is that Bud plays all of these characters, who only interact with Paul. But Tremblay has instead given all of those characters to a third actor, Ryan Parker, who is also one of the two musicians.

There are musicians?

Indeed there are. Parker and Jeremy Sauer provide musical cues and interludes. In fact, music ties the whole show together, with The Tennessee Waltz both beginning and ending it, with its line “Now I know just how much I have lost” in particular resonating with the theme of aging that runs through the piece.

Parker’s characters, which include a drunk in a small-town bar, a security guard at a casino and gunfight-staging used Mexican furniture salesman on the streets of Tombstone, are all very funny, in an over-the-top kind of way. My one complaint (as someone born in the U.S. whose relatives still live there) is that the playwright has used them for the kind of cheap aren’t-Americans-stupid laughs that Canadians eat up but which have been horrible clichés for decades now. Surely “I have a cousin in Toronto, you must know him” should have long since been laid to rest (preferably with a stake through its heart) as a source of amusement.

(As an aside, we made a road trip to Sante Fe, New Mexico, last summer, and our experiences with Americans included the Montana bread-and-breakfast owners who knew Canada well and loved Regina; the science fiction writer in Denver who ranches in Wyoming and comes to Regina all the time for Agribition; and the gallery owner in Santa Fe who was married to a Canadian and lived in Prince Rupert for a while–all more interesting characters than the dumb-drunk-gun-toting sports fan that makes an appearance in this play.)

How do the performances of the two lead characters stack up?

They’re both very good. Davis is playing someone decades older than his real age, but he’s perfectly believable in the role: he moves like an old man (albeit a fairly spry one) and there’s enough of a quaver in his voice to convince you of his age without turning him into a caricature. It would be easy to make Bud someone the audience didn’t like at all, given his irascibility and set-in-his-ways-iness, but Davis is sympathetic without going too far the other way and making Bud cuddly. He comes across as a real person with a real–and very lengthy–past who has good reasons for being the way he is.

McKistry is also excellent. His character is in his mid-30s, but he comes across as even younger, probably because of the contrast between his naivete and romantic notions about the West and the extremely down-to-Earth Bud. We find out over the course of the play that there’s some unhappiness in his marriage, and Paul talks about not liking the person he is when he’s up north–but that’s all in hints. My one criticism: whether in the script or in the performance, I wish we could see some hint of just what Paul is like when he’s home in Calgary. We infer it from what is said, but we don’t actually see it on stage: Paul seems too shallow a character to have any hidden depths of darkness or cynicism, especially at the beginning.

A road trip implies moving from location to location. How do they accomplish that on the Globe’s stage?

It’s cleverly done. Roger Schultz, the set and costume designer, has made a very simple but effective set that consists of a raised, circular turn-table in the middle, covered with fake grass–the cheap, unnaturally green kind–and surrounded by a little moat filled with pebbles. When the lights come up, there’s a garden gnome sitting in the middle of the turntable, a gnome whose significance we don’t discover until it appears again at the end of the play.

Surrounding the turntable is a circular road, complete with center stripes. The corners of the set are filled in with more fake grass, and there are four lawn chairs. That’s it! Put two lawn chairs together, and you have the car. And when you need to indicate that the car is twisting and turning, you put the lawn chairs on the turntable and have a costumed stage hand come out and spin it back and forth. By moving the chairs around, you can establish the bar, the casino, and so on.

To establish where each scene is taking place, images are projected on two walls of the theatre, opposite each other, above the heads of the audience. So, for example, when we’re in a cas
ino, we see images of a casino. When the characters are visiting London Bridge, sitting in its improbable location in the middle of the Arizona desert, we see pictures of it. This works well in some ways, not so well in others. Rather like those annoying television screens that are in every bar you go into any more, the images–which change constantly–draw your eye. Particularly if you’re sitting, as I was, where you have to look left or right to see them, they tend to pull your attention away from what’s happening on stage. Even when there are just variations of the same thing being shown, the images change often enough that you can’t help but look up at them frequently. As a result, though I enjoyed them, I thought at times they actually distracted from the play. I think I would have preferred something more static: a single image of the bridge, fewer images to establish travel through the countryside, so you could glance up just once in a while and not feel you were missing something.

So you have a few criticisms of the play, but overall…?

Overall, I liked it a lot. Bud and Paul are interesting characters you enjoy being with. Their journey to Mesa provides plenty of laughter and one or two lumpy-throat moments as well. Older people may identify most with Bud, younger people–especially those with elderly relatives–may identify most with Paul, but I think everyone will enjoy travelling to Mesa with them.

The audience at opening night agreed: they gave it a quick and enthusiastic standing ovation.

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