The Canadian premiere of Strangers, Babies by award-winning Scottish playwright Linda McLean is currently being staged at the funky, new-ish Artscape Sandbox. The staging is distinctive in that the theatre has been transformed into different rooms and the audience is free to move around from space to space, following the action. Michael Gianfrancesco’s set is sparse yet striking. On the journey we visit a hospital room, a hotel room, the main character’s living space, a playground and a meeting room. Video by Cameron Davis is used to great effect. Projections at the top of the show explain how the theatrical experience works followed by images of outdoor spaces and later a scene is recorded and projected from multiple angles on the wall. It was interesting to go between the live action and viewing the recordings.
Theatre PANIK is led by co-artistic directors and husband and wife team, Paul Lampert and Niki Landau. Lampert directs the piece with great economy while Landau takes on the main role of May. She does well as the troubled, bird-like character, capturing the off-beat, awkwardness of the role. While not a particularly likable character because of her various eccentricities, Landau makes you root for her anyway.
May is trying to live a normal life but the past haunts her. We see fractured interactions with both her father and brother, an extremely uneasy sexual encounter with a stranger, a stilted conversation with her husband and a rather desperate scene with Child Protective Services. May made a promise to her brother that she would not have children, a promise she did not keep. There are questions as to whether or not she can be trusted with a baby.
I was engaged with the staging but not the script. Immersive theatre can be so fascinating. There is something thrilling about the audience being part of the show, not sitting back in the safety of a dark theatre. However, I found that I was tuning in and out of the script. A large part of it is that McLean does not write the way people speak in day-to-day life. As a result, the actors weren’t completely settled into their characters and the dialogue did not sound entirely naturalistic.
The strongest scene of Strangers, Babies was between Landau and Richard Lee, when May meets up with a stranger for a sexual liaison in a hotel room. Lee is so engaging and absolutely riveting to watch. Perhaps it’s because of his charm that when the scene shifts into darkness, it is very chilling.
I found myself frustrated with David Schurmann’s take on a dying man on a morphine drip. The script is partly to blame once again but the vocal and physical energy that Schurmann seemed to possess wasn’t plausible from a man that close to death and that drugged up.
This is risky, creative theatre. The artistry is impressive and it is worth a look to see theatre done differently. Strangers, Babies is on now through May 28th.