Go with the flow
Play's riverside setting heightens mood and mystery
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/09/2021 (568 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Winnipeg has now gone two years without a fringe festival. The ironic thing about that is that, for fans of live theatre, going to a play is a decidedly fringe-y prospect these days.
In the last few weeks, we attended a Winnipeg Jewish Theatre performance of Jack Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise in a big open tent on the Asper campus, with an audience of masked, socially distanced attendees. (The play’s producers weren’t too happy about some set pieces being pilfered from the tent facility, but the audience did not seem to miss the hard-top comfort of WJT’s usual Berney Theatre venue.)
This week sees Theatre By the River get even more outdoorsy with performances of Zinnie Harris’s haunting drama Meet Me at Dawn. The cast take us to a “liminal place” by a body of water where an energized Helen (Mel Marginet) expresses joy at having survived a boating accident alongside her more subdued girlfriend Robyn (Alissa Watson).
The play is performed off the banks of the Red River by Whittier Park. The Thursday evening performance was done in front of a subtly glorious sunset, with a view of the Exchange District and the rear of the Mere Hotel on Waterfront Drive. The location, the two-person cast and the rather ephemeral subject matter combined to give off a fringe groove, in the best way.
And yet, the show, directed by Cherissa Richards, had little of the jerryrigged feel of a fast fringe flight. It’s a solid show, anchored by proficient work by the two leads with a spacey aural ambience courtesy of sound designer Ali Khan, who works to the right of Marginet and Watson. (The 90, intermission-free minutes fly by, and you can’t say that about most fringe fest shows that dare to take on that running time.)
Khan imbues the play with a suggestion that all is not what it appears. While Helen bounces with glee having apparently survived a boating accident during an ill-conceived jaunt at sea, Robyn remains fearful, possibly because she suffered a concussion, or because the place they’ve landed seems like a place out of a dream, with landmarks being described at “smudges.”
Or maybe it’s something else.
Scottish playwright Zinnie Harris’s work has been compared to the enigmatic TV series Lost, not without good reason, given the combination of mystery and survival elements.
But ultimately, the show proves to be much more contained and succinct. In the program’s director’s notes, Richards tells us the play is about grief. While it doesn’t dogmatically declaim Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — it does address each of those stages in an organic way, even as it keeps the mystery behind that grief going through its first hour.
Marginet and Watson make for an interesting dynamic. Initially, the two work an Odd Couple kind of chemistry with Marginet’s Helen trying to jolly up Watson’s traumatized Robyn, before each character endures some radical shifts as the truth of their situation is incrementally revealed. Both performers leaven the heaviness of the subject matter with a mix of gravity, compassion and no small amount of wit.
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TBTR asks audience members to bring a lawn chair or a blanket, with seating arranged “Folk Fest Style” with low seating in the front and taller chairs in the back. Because September in Manitoba can be cool, they encourage audience members to dress in layers, or bring a blanket to cuddle up in after the sun goes down. The show will proceed through light rain, but will be halted during heavy rain or lightning.
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In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.