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Reviewed By John Threlfall
When it comes to good theatre, only half of what matters is ever seen on the stage; the other half is what goes on in your head after the lights come up. Such is the case with The Trespassers, the latest from respected Canadian playwright Morris Panych, with whom the Belfry Theatre has a long and storied history (Vigil, Earshot, The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl, The Ends of the Earth).
As with all of his works, The Trespassers features a cast of quirky characters caught up in circumstances that are both relatively normal and notably unusual, and the results are a typically Panychian mix of humour and pathos. Better still, much of The Trespassers is sincerely funny, although there were times on opening night when the laughs tended to drown out the show’s bigger picture. But such is the beauty of The Trespassers—much like the peaches that act as the show’s central metaphor, you can take as big as a bite of it as you like. Go for the funny, stay for the symbolism.
Lowell (Amitai Marmorstein) is a small-town 15-year-old with a possible behavioural disorder being raised by a recently divorced mother (Natascha Girgis) who seems to be using Christianity as a fix to get over Lowell’s cheating father. Meanwhile, her father (Brian Dooley) has stepped up as the dominant male in Lowell’s life, passing on his accumulated—and unabashedly anarchistic—worldly wisdom about life, sex, truth, religion and property ownership with the help of his charming aging sexpot paramour (Jennifer Clement). Add to that one more central plot point that I won’t reveal here for risk of spoiling the show, and you have an engaging intergenerational dramatic comedy with a lot on its mind.
A co-production with the Vancouver Playhouse, this is only the second mounting of The Trespassers (following its Stratford debut in 2009), and it’s a treat to see it so early in its life. Not only is the cast uniformly strong, with Marmorstein—best known for his performance in the acclaimed Legoland, but here in his Belfry debut—able to hold much of the spotlight thanks to an eagerly neurotic performance that’s like Richie Cunningham on speed, but the show’s creative team is perfectly matched to the characteristically physical style of director Ron Jenkins (BASH’d, The Black Rider). Whereas Panych’s script literally explodes with big ideas (“What stops people from doing wrong?” Lowell wonders at one point), Narda McCarroll’s set seems to freeze these ideas in time: all free-hanging tree limbs and peaches, it’s like time has slowed to a crawl to allow the audience to explore Panych’s multiple and often non-linear but eventually intersecting thoughts—an effect heightened by Kerem Çentinel’s evocative and beautiful lighting. (Çentinel even has one character primarily lit by plain white light to better represent the story’s “real” time.)
Despite a couple of opening-night line stumbles, the accomplished cast is a treat to watch. While Girgis (The Drowning Girls) is saddled with the straight-mom role, she plays it well, and Clement’s saucy minx was clearly a crowd favourite; Dooley’s curmudgeonly grandfather (way more subversive than the old guy in Up) has a challenging character arc but he played it well, never slipping too far. And the hardest role by far is that of Raphael Kepinski, who is on stage for practically the entire show but has the least to do. Still, Jenkins is a director who knows how to work a stage, and he has his cast weave a physical web across the boards that rarely stops—and when it does, it freezes the action in a telling moment of memory.
A coming-of-age story that pivots between opposite ends of the life cycle, Morris Panych‘s The Trespassers lends itself to whatever you’re looking for: a show dripping with symbolism (everything from Biblical forbidden fruit to T.S. Eliot) or a smarter-than-average black family comedy that could easily share a pop-culture category with the Coen Brothers. And I don’t know if it was intentional to open this season with yet another small-town comedy about a single mom, her teenage boy and his quirky grandparent (à la last season’s Bordertown Café), but it’s nice to see one that actually works.
This article first appeared in Monday Magazine in 2010.