Kenny Streule, creator-performer of Malunderstood: A Virtual Performance Experience (image credit: Sean Colby)
Having run through the curious gamut of the new “digital theatre” genre that has necessarily emerged in a pandemic-stricken Montreal over the past 10 months, there is something of a great joy when a creation finds its sweet spot in this often unforgiving hybrid of stage and screen mediums.
It’s rather surreal to recall that less than a year ago we were packed inside the MainLine Theatre MiniMain studio, awaiting the opening of the sold-out 2-week run of playwright-performer Kenny Streule’s first solo show. In its original iteration, Malunderstood registered as a humorous yet touching autobiography from one of Montreal theatre’s most beloved personalities. Oft recognized for his hosting gigs and tenured role as the Narrator in MainLine’s annual Rocky Horror Show, the scripted piece provided for a humanizing behind-the-curtain peek into the life of the enigmatic and self-described “mal”-understood Streule.
As an audience member, I remember parting the 45-minute affair with the “more, please” hankering. Lo and behold, the Theatre Gods have promptly delivered (even if essentially all of my other prayers to the elusive powers in 2020 have been sorely dismissed.)
Part 2.0, Malunderstood: The Virtual Performance Experience, finds itself filmed in a COVID-19 summer where our protagonist has returned home to the dairy farms of Brome Lake in southern Quebec. There, Kenny visits his Swiss German family in a rural English community and is pulled back to childhood memories of life with the asperous and cynical Grandmother Beaver – a character we’ve only ever come to hear of in her fabled, larger-than-life existence.
It’s not quite the stage play as we recall it, and yet it borrows familiar text and themes from the original script to intimately reframe a comically charming story of small-town upbringings and big city dreams.
The vivid backdrop that could only previously be depicted in speech to theatregoers has now been visually summoned on screen to superimpose the designs of our imagination. This filmed version of Malunderstood is precisely that – a film, and a beautifully produced one at that (Sean Colby is credited for the camerawork and editing. Granted, the project has received funding from the Canada Council for the Arts as part of its #digitaloriginals program). A breath of fresh, pastural air.
Don’t get me wrong – I’ve had my own wondrous ventures into the uncharted realms of low-budget Zoom theatre-making and sketchy archival recordings, but the colourful imagery and textured landscapes of this cinematic piece are a welcome eyeful for a change.
Director Amy Blackmore brings out the best of Streule, who here ascertains his gifted instinct for storytelling and a charismatic presence that magnetizes across scales, whether it be within the vast amplitudes of the black box theatre or within the close-up shots of the camera. Both are equally engaging – and complementary – intimate viewer experiences. (In reckoning, ‘experience‘ has its due placement in the show title.)
Overall, the piece has matured and transferred well. Dare I say though that I am slightly more partial to the – gasp – digital variant, even if in 99.99% of instances I would prefer the experience of a live play to a movie any day.
The skimmed-down script does unfortunately lose some lovely anecdotes, however, which in turn makes the narration feel more fragmented and on the surface. I suppose I would have also then preferred along with this swiss army-knife cut a more narrowed focus on Streule’s tensioned relationship with Beaver (as opposed to giving so much time to the sibling rivalry). In 18 condensed minutes, however, Malunderstood still manages to hit the emotional notes of the universal struggles of fitting in, finding acceptance, and achieving connection through the embrace of the authentic self.
As a final note: it is most interesting that Beaver still never appears, even as we tour her living quarters and know of her nearby presence as Streule films the hometown scenes in documentary-inspired fashion. Whether by artistic choice or not, it’s a poignant touch.
Malunderstood: A Virtual Performance Experience has its Easter egg delights for audiences that saw the 2020 stage play and/or know Streule personally, and yet it is perfectly enjoyable as a standalone piece for viewers new and afar. It remains online until the end of the Quebec lockdown… “whenever that is.” Pandemic silver linings.
KS Productions and MainLine Theatre present Malunderstood: A Virtual Performance Experience. The experience is Pay-What-You-Decide and viewers can purchase tickets at www.kennystreule.ca. After watching the video, please consider donating to the production through Paypal (Credit Cards) or e-transfer (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Written and Performed by Kenny Streule
Directed by Amy Blackmore
Adapted by Amy Blackmore and Kenny Streule
Filmed and Edited by Sean Colby
Dramaturgy provided by Jesse Stong
Production Management by Rebecca Durocher
Costume Consultation by holly Greco
Dialect Coaching by Michael J. Zernitz
Puppet Design by Jessica Alley
Poster Design by Becca McFarlane
Supported by MainLine Theatre and the Canada Council for the Arts
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