It took a while for the penny to drop as I watched the last workshop performance of Action, a 70s Sam Shepard piece about a quartet of figures in a post-apocalyptic world trying to celebrate a Christmas meal with little food and even less motivation to interact. The workshop was one of the Artists' Showcases sponsored by Equity Showcase Theatre.
In the text, the four try to read from a book but have lost their place; it's a kind of running gag. The book that director Brendan Healy physically inserted into the production was The Art Of Coarse Acting, Michael Green's very funny work about the right and wrong ways to perform. It becomes the Bible for this show's style.
The workshop's funny right from the top, with Anna Chatterton nervously delivering her own post-modern prologue (and later an epilogue) to the piece, checking her semi-forgotten lines with the script she carries.
Then we meet the four characters, sitting around a huge table and unable to relate meaningfully with one another. The script has absurd elements, with a carved turkey and a dead fish figuring prominently, along with broken chairs, a washline and a pail of water.
The cast make great use of Green's book, demonstrating everything an actor shouldn't do. Greg Thomas does frequent takes to the audience, Maev Beaty swings her arms madly in melodramatic patterns, Aviva Armour-Ostroff speaks inexpressively and loudly enough to catch the attention of someone four blocks away, and Brendan Gall's monotonic speech pattern would be a useful torture technique to use on prisoners.
At some point everyone breaks the fourth wall and sneaks looks at the audience, slips into broken rhythms, runs their lines together, doesn't listen to another's lines, breathes badly, loses focus, milks physical tics, doesn't pick up a cue, steals focus...well, you get the idea.
Funny, yes, but why combine style and script?
About midway through the hour-long piece the characters start to talk about community; someone mentions the word, another asks what it means, a third can't offer an explanation. And then it's clear that not only the characters but also this ensemble of actors is trying to find a community, to link meaningfully with each other; neither set of people can do it. That's when I clued in to all the talk about motivation, explanations for doing things and all the other actorly sorts of questions that audiences never get to see worked out in rehearsals.
Even if a viewer doesn't get the subtext, there's lots of entertainment in the piece, with everyone doing good work.
But I have to single out Gall's little-boy innocent, increasingly troubled Jeep for his wonderfully engaging comedy, tinged with something just a bit sad and dark. Gall's impressed me for years with his comic skills in everything from Shakespeare to David Mamet and new Canadian works. He's also a playwright, and we've seen some of his short pieces in the Fringe. I'm looking forward his first full-length piece, Alias Godot, which the Tarragon is staging next season.