On the humble stage of the brick-walled, cabaret-style Theatre Saint Catherine, Supernova Productions’ first-time director Jasmine Winter ambitiously attempts to stage Drama: Pilot Episode, the witty, dark, metatheatre comedy by award-winning playwright Karen Hines.
Drama: Pilot Episode follows a forensic psychiatrist (talented in knowing the thoughts of the recently dead) who moves to a frontier town out West. With the Banff World Media Festival abuzz, an unappreciated writer comes to her for psychiatric help. When he hangs himself and leaves her his writings, the doctor finds herself confronting her own psychosis. Hines interweaves themes such as the ethics of procreation, the sociality of the human species, the demand for “drama” in the entertainment industry, the souls of the dead and the unborn, the purpose of psychiatry, the experience of women, and the existential question, “Why are you here?”
Those who are unfamiliar with Hines’ play are given little premise of what’s to come. The program features a long director’s note—an apologetic disclaimer that this is Winter’s first time “directing anything in my life,” instead of any mention about the play or the playwright. Not only does this severely lower audiences’ expectations, but it leaves them unprepared for the weirdness upon which they are about to embark. When the story unexpectedly shifts from dull realism to violence, hallucinations, and self-referential metatheatre, viewers are left to wonder if any foreshadowing that Hines intended got lost in weak directing or amateur acting.
Although an applaudably ambitious effort for an amateur’s first foray into directing, this production does not do justice to the complexity and nuance of Hines’ writing. Some of the script’s dense philosophical dialogue still seeks to be brought out by proper articulation, projection, and pacing.
The performers, however, are well cast in their roles. Tyler Rourke coyly breaks the fourth wall while he narrates from within “the gentle retard” trope. Casey Ecker plays a narcissistic actress with tender authenticity and brilliant comedic timing. Ross Berlettano playfully takes on the role of satirical narrator and blustering doctor. Gabe Maharjan gives life to a fifteen-year-old child who was never born, an ethereal embodiment of possibilities.
This production mainly relies on lighting and video projection for its scenography, while the few furniture pieces and props look deliberately cheap. In some moments, the low-budget effects (like using a plastic toy duck as a dead sparrow) are humorous. However, with no set or props designer, the tactile elements of the production fall short of their potential. For one thing, the design does little to illustrate the play’s culturally and historically specific context, especially for audiences who are less familiar with the “cowboy” and “oil wife” culture of an Alberta “boom town.” Secondly, Hines’ published notes on the play’s design call for its set and props to carry many visual and metaphorical tensions; whereas cheap, non-specific, Dollarama props fail to provide that extra layer of mood and symbolism. Over all, this production certainly would have benefited from a set designer and props designer, to bring out the material culture of the specific setting, as well as the “neo-noir sensibility” described by Hines, and the additional levels of meaning that can be created by narrative objects.
That said, video designer Marco Carreiro brought creative solutions and vibrant effects to each scene. He transforms the set by projecting simple everyday objects and moody weather changes. Carreiro’s dreamy video sequence before intermission—with glitching and warping Hitchcockian horror shots and swirling clouds of black Rorschachian ink—visually interprets the characters’ inner turmoil and their lives’ dystopian resemblance to television drama.
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