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Theater Preview: Cul-de-sac

Published January 26, 2005 at 11:38 p.m.

North American culture is wild about euphemisms. Rapacious oil companies are now "energy companies." Weapons plants make "anti-personnel products." Housing developments take their names from the wildlife destroyed to make room for them. But in Canadian playwright-actor Daniel MacIvor's new one-man show, Cul-de-sac, the sophisticated-sounding French word cannot mask the reality that his characters live on a dead-end street. When he brings the show to FlynnSpace for three performances this week, audiences will become virtual neighbors to nine characters sharing their side of the same story about a recent death on their block.

While indicting suburban life is a time-honored tradition in the arts, MacIvor's play takes a refreshingly different tack. Cul-de-sac exposes a sordid underbelly of alienated non-community, and, perhaps more importantly, illuminates the inescapable effects neighbors have on one another. The cul-de-sac leads nowhere, after all, so people's lives are unavoidably entwined -- despite snobbery, curmudgeonliness, indifference, animosity, homophobia and angst. All of those attitudes, and more, emerge in MacIvor's portrayals.

Dressed in a simple black costume, MacIvor plays each role under the direction of longtime collaborator Daniel Brooks. Using only facial gestures, body language and an ear keenly tuned to human speech, MacIvor animates a dizzyingly diverse array of individuals, each of them distinct and fully realized. The central character is Leonard, a gay man who, as we learn at the start of the play, has died. Addressing the audience directly, Leonard introduces himself with charming self-deprecation, calling attention to his homosexuality and quirks such as making quotation marks in the air with his fingers. Leonard initiates the mystery of his death by describing the sound he made in the small hours of his final, fateful Sunday morning. That sound provides the bridge to other characters, each of whom remembers the sound differently.

We meet Eddie and Joy, a bickering couple who disagree sharply about Leonard's character.

Retired veterinarian Dr. "Bic" Bickerson weighs in with a recollection that shifts from irascible to tenderly nostalgic. Leonard's death -- especially the sound of it -- triggers memories of Bickerson's deceased wife and the many cats he has euthanized in his career, including Leonard's cat, Whiskers.

Precocious 13-year-old Madison Page Turner appears to have been Leonard's only friend on the block. Aside from Leonard himself, she's the only real truth-teller among the dramatis personae, leveling a bratty, critical gaze at the neighborhood. She describes Leonard as a man who must have been very lonely indeed.

Although he has little in common with Madison, MacIvor comes across convincingly, and amusingly, as a teenaged girl. Between rants about what "knobs" her parents are (Canadian slang for goober?), she shares portions of her novel-in-progress about a balsa-wood astronaut. Madison's father, the lawyer Ken Turner, makes a brief appearance, but only long enough to squawk on his cell phone.

Neighbors Virginia and Samuel, culture vultures with a taste for Gilbert & Sullivan operas, complete the neighborhood set.

Into this modern Canadian Our Town swaggers an interloper: Eric, a drug-stoked hustler whom Leonard meets at the local "alternative bar." Here the play takes an edgy, violent turn.

Its transformation is punctuated by staccato jolts of sound and flashes of light -- the work of sound designer Richard Feren and lighting designer Kimberly Purtell, respectively. Aside from a single chair onstage and a lighter that MacIvor flicks from time to time, from character to character, sound and light are the only production effects at work. And they work very well, reminding us that a dark line runs through this chorus of idiosyncratic voices.

Though the introduction of Eric precipitates the play's climax, MacIvor has already demonstrated his personal best in a scene that requires him to play eight of the nine characters at a single gathering. Breaking the conventional solo performance model, monologue yields to frenetic dialogue.

Embodying multiple personalities so skillfully has made MacIvor what one Canadian newspaper called the country's "most popular postmodern playwright." That MacIvor's plays often find him reaching beyond the "fourth wall" to speak directly to audiences has also earned his work the "metatheatrical" label -- plays cognizant of their contrivance as plays.

But for MacIvor, his approach has less to do with theory than with storytelling conceived as a highly social activity -- a link with the Cape Breton of his youth, where oral narrative traditions thrive. "The fact that we've made a choice to be in this room together should be acknowledged," he says in a recent phone interview from his home in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He draws a distinction between his style and the more conventional "theater of observation and appreciation." The deeper engagement an audience may feel with his play, he says, gives it a heart that labels such as "postmodern" fail to imply.

Other critics have noted MacIvor's penchant for plays dealing with death. He considers death, thematically speaking, a communal experience guaranteed to resonate with audiences. "I guess I'm always looking for the thing that everyone in the room can agree on sharing," he says. "What is it that we all have thoughts about? Truly, we die. Some people actually don't pay taxes, apparently."

In Cul-de-sac as in Our Town, death is treated in a way that implies not dark endings but the lightness of being. Leonard has died, yes, but the mystery of his death occasions a worthwhile review of his life -- and of the lives that touched him and were touched in return. One sees that even the loneliest soul doesn't live in total isolation. "We are part of one another's story," MacIvor suggests.

If there's something sinister in this suburban drama, it isn't the suburbs. Leonard's neighbors don't cause his death, and yet they are guilty of something. Therein lie the most poignant questions raised in the course of this unique, powerful play. "It isn't about how we don't connect," MacIvor says. "It's about how it takes all of us to tell our story. I love all these characters." He's careful not to reveal a favorite, though: "I'm not allowed to say because the others will get mad at me."

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About The Author

Erik Esckilsen

Erik Esckilsen

Erik Esckilsen is a freelance writer and Champlain College professor who lives in Burlington.


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