Eric Peterson delivers a master class in acting – and striptease.
FESTEN by David Eldridge from the Dogme film, directed by Jason Byrne (The Company Theatre). At the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). To December 13. $20-?$40. 416-?368-?3110. Rating: NNN
Eric Peterson's black-underwear-clad bottom writhing just inches from your face - talk about being cornered by gas - is not what you'd expect from a night at the theatre. But then again, Festen is no ordinary play.
It's David Eldridge's dramatization of the Danish movie of the same name about wealthy patriarch Helge's (Peterson) 60th birthday party. After cocktails and a couple of revealing toasts about Helge's abusive past, the dinner party gradually becomes a long night's journey into incriminations, denials and skirmishes (which explains Peterson's bum in my face).
The film, called The Celebration in English, was one of the first Dogme experiments, effectively employing hand-h?eld cameras and natural lighting to capture so-called real life. That strategy works better in film, which is a more realistic medium than theatre.
Director Jason Byrne tries to make us feel we're right there. He keeps the house lights up, exposes the entire playing area and makes use of the theatre's doors to suggest other rooms and even (brr) the outside. The actors eat real food off real china.
But we're still passive viewers trying to suspend our disbelief. A Tamara-like production, set in an actual home where we could eavesdrop on conversations and pick up clues with the characters, would have taken the concept to its next level, but that would have been Dogme on unlimited dollars.
Festen's script was penned before the wave of confessional memoirs, so it's less shocking than the film was when it premiered a decade ago. You can see the piece's manipulations, and a crucial letter that helps turn the plot feels like a Hitchcock McGuffin.
That said, what makes the play work is the subtext, which is essential for great performances. In this polite Danish home - everything except the songs translates effectively - what these characters say is never what they mean. The actors know how to hold back and when to let loose. Watching Peterson and Rosemary Dunsmore (as wife Elsa) feels like attending a master class in acting, while Philip Riccio, Allan Hawco and Tara Rosling make their children very different and, considering the parents, very authentic.
Not all the parts are as juicy as these; Caroline Cave and Nicholas Campbell's characters seem to be missing arcs.
One of the most haunting sequences in the show is a scene in which a girl's voice wafts in from another room. Is it a ghost? Who knows? That's the magic - and artifice - of theatre.