Old Times

Frank Theatre follows two friends to the odd side of Ontario; Dean J. Seal sorts through the scraps of his past

Looking at the story for Judith Thompson's Perfect Pie, you may not consider the play an obvious pick for Frank Theatre. In brief, Thompson's script tells of a reunion between two childhood girlfriends from Marmora, Ontario, as they share rhubarb pie and reminisce about their lost youth. This is print, so you could not see me yawning as I typed that description, but trust me--I yawned. Certain words in the plot summary seem designed to be soporific: Ontario, rhubarb pie, reminisce, Marmora. I'm yawning again.

So what is this play doing at Frank Theatre, which in the past few years has brought us Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera and Heiner Müller's Description of a Picture, Explosion of a Memory, and will return to Brecht this fall with the seldom-produced The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui? We are talking about Wendy Knox, an artistic director whose Marxist and feminist (and Marxist-feminist?) play selections have been matched in eccentricity by the droll performances she coaxes out of actors (consider, for example, the puppet-like histrionics of Heidi Fellner as Polly Peachum in Frank's Threepenny Opera). The Frank Theatre can always be counted on to provide audiences with an invigorating weirdness, and, based on the plot description of Perfect Pie--well, doesn't it seem just a bit too pedestrian?

Canadian pie: Suzanne Warmanen and Phyllis Wright play childhood friends Marie and Patsy
Canadian pie: Suzanne Warmanen and Phyllis Wright play childhood friends Marie and Patsy

The answer, of course, is that Perfect Pie is stranger than its outline would suggest. The plot, if you can even call it that, is merely a frame upon which playwright Thompson has hung a series of expressionistic vignettes. Expressionistic in the literary sense, mind you, not in any painterly way. This is not a stage covered in a gauze of colorful light. The set is, in fact, rather plain: a kitchen, with pie in the oven and children's drawings on the refrigerator. Instead, the play offers a distinctly rural sort of expressionism that emerges from the mundane, a dreamlike sense of character and plot that recalls Kevin Kling's The Ice-Fishing Play. Both that script and this one offer a sort of exaggeration of the commonplace that makes odd even the most humdrum experiences--such as drinking schnapps for Kling or eating pie for Thompson.

Thompson begins her play with Patsy (Phyllis Wright), a detached farm wife, rolling dough and asking her long-lost friend Marie (Suzanne Warmanen) a perfectly bewildering question: We were in an accident and I saw you die. But if you died, how come I see you now, growing famous as an actress? Perfect Pie seeks to answer that question through a series of flashbacks in which we see the two women as children, and here is where Knox's taste for offbeat performances serves the play best.

As acted by Maggie Chestovich and Emily Zimmer (both girls are waifs with wide eyes and blunt haircuts), the kids are an overstatement of childhood. Chestovich and Zimmer tackle their scenes with girlish movements, absent-mindedly dancing in place. Every line they deliver is in the intonation of a child who is convinced that her parents are idiots, and so has begun to speak to them very earnestly and carefully. Thompson's dialogue is poetic and unexpected, and when delivered in this manner it's often very funny. Recalling an episode of corporal punishment meted out by her principal, Chestovich describes it breathlessly in these words: "Oh my godfather--you should see that strap!" Hearing her, I saw the strap; I imagine most of the audience did as well. The character continues to replace the word god with godfather throughout the play, even as an adult. Each time, it gets funnier.

Thompson's story is a grim one. Patsy, as a result of her accident, suffers terrible seizures (Act One ends with a bravura, chilling monologue by Wright comparing her epilepsy to a stalker). Marie, impoverished as a child, was the subject of shockingly cruel derision by her classmates (Thompson's account is vivid here: Classmates jeer at the little girl by coughing whenever she is around). Grim though the girls' story may be, the relationship between the two characters is exquisite and moving. As children they cling to each other the way children do, drawing strength from the certainty of their friendship (Chestovich's explanation as to why she isn't cruel to her friend is that she didn't catch the sickness everyone else caught: "It's like a cold, eh? For stupid people.").

As adults, they cling to their memories of that friendship. They share a wounded childhood, but their memories are of how they tended each other's wounds, which is a lovely thing to remember.

 

If there is a precedent for Dean J. Seal's one-man show Scavenger Hunt, it would be those edifying lectures that toured through Minnesota when it was still a territory, in which scientists or clergymen would ride the riverboat up to St. Paul and then take a stagecoach up to St. Anthony to appear before public meeting halls. There, they would speak of the wonders of science or the wonders of God. Often their lectures included a few songs or a prayer session.

Seal offers all of the above. In fact, he opens his show with a formal-sounding series of introductory comments, which, on closer inspection, mean nothing at all. Indeed, as edifying lectures go, Seal's contrarily refuses to mean what it should. Rather than calling his autobiographical show Scavenger Hunt (drawn from the title of a series of editorials he wrote for the short-lived local arts journal Revue), Seal could as well name the show after a line from one of the poems he reads: You're never too old to fuck up. Hardly what our St. Anthony forebears would have expected.

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