by Morris Panych
Director Glynis Leyshon Sets and Costumes Ken MacDonald Lighting Alan Brodie Sound Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe
Dates 18 January - 3 February 2007@ 20.00 Venue Vancouver Playhouse
Reviewer J H Stape
The Playhouse has a surefire hit on its hands in Morris Panych's, Vigil, a black comedy about death, ageing, loneliness, and that other sacred cow, "family." The cheering audience at its close paid homage to two searingly brilliant performances -- the timing of both actors being razor sharp, with each gesture and glance calculated for maximum impact. And the Playhouse crowd, which came for a good guffaw and got it, clearly loved the material.
If you like your theatre mirthful rather than thoughtful, this crowd-pleaser is your cuppa in spades. A confection determinedly bound to please dominates: sight gags, throwaway one-liners, dramatic irony, sudden twists, and the whole classic bag of tricks used with an unerring sense and geared to milk laugh after laugh.
Theatre of this kind exposes foible (not flaying it as in satire) to show a mirror to ourselves, and Panych, with sureness of instinct, hits upon a theme of extraordinary relevance to our self-indulgent age: monstrous self-absorption.
Kemp, played by the playwright himself, is a colossal mediocrity whose misanthropy and self-loathing know no bounds. Too sharp of tongue and too much an exaggeration for us to identify with -- or to hate -- Kemp (named for Shakespeare's clown?) is one of life's complete and utter failures.
He spends the first act feeling viciously sorry for himself and avoiding all responsibility for what he is, finding fault with everything and everyone but himself. In the second act, administered a shock (both figuratively and literally), he begrudgingly and belatedly grows into a human being through a reluctant relationship with (the symbolically named) Grace. An old, very old, woman on her deathbed, Grace just won't die, but whether out of an unremitting commitment to LIFE or out of sheer stubbornness is left deliciously ambiguous.
Jennifer Phipps's performance in this role is nothing less than wondrous magic. In the whole of the first act (it lasts nearly an hour and could do with some judicious cutting), she has but a single line: a vengeful "Merry Christmas" that brings down the curtain. Throughout, her timing is like a Rolex's: sheer perfection achieved by burnished craftsmanship.
Like Panych, Phipps is abetted by Glynis Leyshon's crisp direction, and in a play like this timing is absolutely all. There's nothing new under the sun here -- fair enough in comedy -- a form as traditional and as old as the hills, and Panych's paucity of ideas, made up by gimmickry, pulling out all the stops all the time, and sleight of hand (and tongue) works in this frothy tour de farce.
If comedy lite R Us is your thing, this is doubtless "fantastic" stuff, as one audience member proclaimed with satisfaction at the play's end. Theatre for the great washed, it's the kind that sees bums in seats. Book your tickets now, folks -- and hurry.
© 2007 J H Stape