This production was a complete sell out. The good sort. With five shows still to go, I overheard a couple at the front desk of the LSPU Hall last Wednesday morning asking about tickets with no luck. They had tried to buy the tickets online but since they had not been familiar with the website, they had trouble and thought they would just come on in to town and try in person. This anecdotally confirmed what I had been hearing all week; this show was not only playing to a full house every night, but to a house not full of regulars. People have been streaming in from beyond the overpass, braving the icy sidewalks and anachronistic parking of downtown St John’s in January to see original, contemporary, local, live theatre.
These are numbers to be celebrated. While everyone agrees our island is loaded with talent, building audiences for the Arts is a constant challenge everywhere. It is hard enough competing with all of the entertainment options offered around town each night, but, especially in bad weather, the ultimate competition is with entertainment we can access from our own homes, with no shovelling and no winter tires, and no ticket purchases.
A triumph for one production is a boon to all local arts endeavours. Theatre like Brazil Square, contemporary yet accessible, is like a wedge opening up audiences to future, more varied, productions. Once you have bought one ticket online, figured out just where to park, and experienced the magic of the lights dimming at The Hall for the first time, it is that much easier to pop out the next time you see a poster that piques your curiosity; that much easier to chose live art over streamed Netflix at home.
Berni Stapleton (writer), Amy House (director), and Katie Butler Major (the Communications Officer for LSPU), along with the cast and crew, and bolstered by the pull of the storied nostalgia of the subject matter of Brazil Square itself, made this production a success before the curtain ever raised. As an arts community, let us congratulate them for packing the seats.
From observation of the audience, those seats were well satisfied with what they saw. I heard laughter and gasps and saw everyone’s full attention throughout. This was impressive as the audience I was in was made up almost entirely of high school students (a special matinee showing). While their theatre etiquette was not polished, there was gratification (if distraction for the actors) in hearing “Oh! That gave me goosebumps!” exclaimed out loud from the front row during an emotional scene.
The play itself was nostalgic, earnest and funny. The set was simple and illuminating, giving enough atmosphere and clear cues to bring us into the room and era of each scene (the play spans three decades) without taking focus off of the swirling lives of the characters. The music medleys between each act were more useful than inspiring in the flow of their cuts and transitions, but the medley of human interactions over each shared meal in the ensuing scenes was the true soul of the show. The hostess Mrs Kent, Played by Petrina Bromely, is both the heart and the ache. She is well written and well acted. I will not forget her.
A comfortable familiarity of character and plot served to ensure that the play, like the meal of salt fish, potatoes and clarified butter threaded through each scene, was reflexively palatable. This connection between material and audience was built with some shortcuts in the way of stereotypes. The characters were nicely shaded and hued varieties of well used tropes. I didn’t come to know them so much as recognize them. For example, the enthusiastic dorkiness of the “Canadian” visiting from the mainland and gaping with pleasure at the “authentic” Newfoundland experience found in Brazil Square was not particularly nuanced, but it did lead to the great bit of dialogue summarizing another inside joke of the island (“I thought all Newfoundlanders were friendly.” “Well, we are … til we aren’t”).
No part of my brain was fundamentally re-wired, as can happen when watching live theatre or dance (as has happened at the LSPU on more than one occasion). The tone of the production is more affirming and touching, than surprising and challenging. The strength of the tone is in the production overcoming that sometimes unbreachable separation of theatre audience from cast action. The ensemble cast and bantering dialogue had me laughing as if I was at dinner (not “supper” which, it was explained, is served in the kitchen) along side of them. It was clear we were all guests at that table together. And whoever that guest may be, baymen, townie, outsider or mainlander, the core theme of losing what you love by sticking to what you have is certainly universal. The small personal tragedies, triumphs, bonds and missed opportunities that played out from those decisions were well executed enough to pull at everyone’s heartstrings.