STEM created and performed by House of Slacks and Les Vaches (Erika Hennebury, Greg MacArthur, Ruth Madoc-Jones and Clinton Walker). Presented by Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander). Opens tonight (Thursday, May 15) and runs to June 1, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $18-$25, Tuesday and Sunday pwyc. 416-975-8555.
Ever left a long dinner party and felt like a drama’s been played out? And that if you haven’t been one of the actors, you’ve been part of the audience?Then you’ll feel right at home with Stem, Buddies’ final show of the year and one of its most intriguing productions.
Created by a quartet of talented indie theatre artists – Les Vaches’ Ruth Madoc-Jones and Erika Hennebury and House of Slacks’ Clinton Walker and Greg MacArthur – the piece scrutinizes four characters at a dinner party where what doesn’t get talked about is as important as what does.
The four writer/performers share an aesthetic, an irreverence about conventional theatre and a sense of how to create works from scratch. Their pieces have a touch of poetry and social satire and a desire to make emotional connections between edgy characters. Works like Les Vaches’ The Ecstatics and House of Slacks’ Millennium Project also rely on a good dose of passion and absurd humour.
So why turn to dinner for a setting?
“We saw and liked the other’s shows, decided to collaborate on a piece and began spinning ideas at 2 am over a bottle of wine,” explains MacArthur.
“But after a workshop where we used our traditional ideas of building a show, we decided to throw out all our old tricks and reinvent how we create,” continues Hennebury.
“We wanted to strip away everything we’ve previously relied on and use a clean base,” says MacArthur in true tag-team fashion, finishing Hennebury’s idea.
I’m speaking with MacArthur and Hennebury over lunch – gyozas and vegetarian stir-fry – and the first thing they talk about is whether or not a mix of Coke and red wine would be a good drink.
The four continued to have regular dinner parties and taped their conversations. They ended up with over 100 tapes of raw material, which Hennebury admits – because the four were aware of being recorded – capture a somewhat stylized version of reality.
The resulting characters, she acknowledges, are slightly exaggerated aspects of the actors’ own personalities, and the material is organized to expose the dynamics of relationships and for theatricality. But there’s nothing of their personal lives in the material. Stem isn’t a bitch or a therapy session.
“There’s also a formality that goes along with a meal of this sort, with a feel quite different from getting together for drinks,” she notes. “A dinner party has its length and its rules, such as the fact that it’s rude to leave early even if you’re stuck in a horrible conversation.”
“You’re trapped,” sighs MacArthur, seeming to think of a particular exper-ience, “’till the dessert is served. You have to endure the evening’s peaks and valleys.”
After a 2001 Rhubarb workshop, the four have come up with Stem, which covers such on-the-surface topics as Swiss Chalet, tacos, quitting smoking, sex with movie stars and the joys of knitting.
But underneath these mundane subjects is a parallel, surreal world full of psychoses, frustration and troubled people’s desire to reach out to others. The characters act out fantasies, flirt with magic realism and turn to Elvis Presley tunes to express their inner lives.
The audience is a collective fly on the wall at a dinner party where things go slightly wrong.
“During the long creation process, nothing was taboo,” recalls MacArthur, “and we really fast-tracked our friendship. After three years of work, our relationships have deepened and changed, as has the show.”
“Yeah,” wisecracks Hennebury, “but I’ve kept all the tapes. I was thinking of editing them and selling sound bites in the lobby.”
“Either that,” adds MacArthur smiling, “or you have a really good source of blackmail material.”