Theatre February 13th, 2015

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Will audiences get Tarragon’s challenging play?

Review

Abyss, by Maria Milisaljevic, directed by Richard Rose, running at Tarragon Theatre’s Extraspace to March 15.

Of all the plays I’ve seen at the Tarragon recently, this English-language premiere of a German production had by far the most muted audience reaction. Hooting was minimal, no one gave a standing ovation and afterward I overheard several theatregoers muttering about not having understood what happened.

I liked it — a lot. Nevertheless, at times throughout the play I found myself thinking, a lot of people might not enjoy this.

First, the good: Abyss is capably anchored by Toronto stage and TV actress Cara Pifko, who gives a tour de force performance as I, the unnamed narrator. Framing the tale of her roommate Karla’s disappearance as a mystery thriller, Pifko delivers what feels like an 80-minute monologue broken up by conversations with and interjections from a handful of supporting characters. They include She (Sarah Sherman), mainly acting as Sophia, an older sister of I, and He (Gord Rand), mainly playing roommate and best friend of I and Karla’s lover, Vlado.

A central theme is the bond between these three and the effect Karla’s disappearance has on them. It is effectively illustrated by I nearly always having the hand of He and She in hers; even when she doesn’t they’re usually touching her.

I’m a big fan of story theatre, which breaks one of the cardinal rules of stage by having only a single character “play out” to the audience while the others act like no one is watching. Done well, as it is here, it gives a play the compulsive feel of a good campfire yarn.

It soon becomes clear that I is a less-than-reliable narrator. She omits key facts about her relationship with Karla and the potential suspects she and her friends visit, while focusing on Vlado more than necessary and drawing the audience’s attention to superfluous-sounding details such as the three hearts on Karla’s boots (one each representing I, Vlado and Karla).

The boots are one of several motifs in the play, and one of its more successful, but they also illustrate the chief weakness: few of the themes snap into focus in a way that will leave you with an “aha!” moment. More often you’ll be left scratching your head.

For example, one of the first stories I tells is about her grandfather skinning her pet rabbit, then presenting her with its tail as a memento. Throughout the show, She bizarrely interjects every few minutes with precise instructions for how to skin a rabbit.

To me, it was clear enough the instructions represented I deliberately sabotaging something — her relationships, perhaps? — but they never had a tangible payoff.

Another, more problematic, theme involves the exploration of real-life tensions between Germany’s native Germans and its Croat, Serb and Russian immigrants. That the narrator and Vlado are Serbian immigrants, with one of Vlado’s parents being a Serb and the other a Croat, is significant, and it creates drama when following Karla’s trail leads I, Sophia and Vlado to the unnamed German setting’s Russian district.

But what role does that tension ultimately play in Karla’s disappearance? I can’t say — and the play doesn’t explain who the sides are in a cultural war I’m guessing a German audience would consider common knowledge.

It doesn’t help that Pifko makes no attempt at an accent (engaging though she is), or that He and She put minimal effort into differentiating their various characters (something which happened too often to not be a stylistic choice).

Ultimately, I liked the show’s approach. I liked Pifko, and enough motifs worked for it to make sense on an emotional level. It’s a challenging play, intentionally so. Yet the line between “challenging” and “pretentious” is a fine one, and I fear that for many Abyss will repeatedly cross that line.