Arts & CultureCampus & City

Theatre Review: Studio Theatre’s “Middletown”

What: Middletown
When: March 28 to April 6, 2019
Where: Timms Centre for the Arts
Tickets: Evening: $12 student, $25 adult,  $22 senior; Matinee: $12 student, $20 adult, $18 senior; Mondays: 2 for 1 

Middletown by Will Eno (directed by Sandra Nicholls) is the crowning achievement of the 2018/19 Studio Theatre season. Unafraid to ask daunting questions —“What happens when you’re born?” “What happens when you die?”— the play has no pretensions, no haughtiness. Director Sandra Nicholls says, “the play is very sparse,” but in the silence between the raw lines of this poetic script there is all the richness of human experience.

The intense but understated emotionalism of Will Eno’s masterful script provides rich material for the talented graduating BFA class. Sarah Emslie (Mrs. Swanson) and Michael Anderson (John Dodge) have the chance to showcase the breadth of their skills as characters who make a brief connection, but are ultimately at crossroads to one another. (“I thought I’d see you,” they say to one another after months apart). But while this script deals with big questions and even vaster emotional depths — childbirth, suicide, addiction, loneliness, the death of a parent — the show is not melodramatic. The cast is precise, intense, and real in their portrayals of human experience. The care that the director and cast have taken with this script is obvious; their performances honour the writing.

Indeed, Nicholls argues that these performers should take away exactly that from this production. “I want them to value their own experiences,” she says, including the every day. Middletown does not shy away from the infinite meanings that can exist in the smallest day-to-day experiences: planting a tree, fixing a drain, checking a book out from the library. Chris Pereira (Mechanic) gives a showstopping performance that reminds the audience of this. “I want to look at the sky and say, hey, look at the sky,” he says. A simple, unremarkable line, but Pereira’s poignant and sympathetic portrayal of a character wracked by deep loneliness made this the saddest moment in a show full of sad moments.

The production of Middletown is as spare and poetic as its script. A set in largely neutral colours takes the audience on a journey from the main street (called main street) to the public library to the hospital, but also into outer space. This is a town, we feel, like any other town, and these human lives like any other human lives. Watching these characters’ lives play out, we long to be in their world, and then remember: we are in their world. The play’s sound design is spare, haunting, even unmusical, a stark contrast to the simple beauty of its picturesque set and rich performances. Yet this contrast is not misplaced, but pulls us deeper into the drama, emphasizing both the joy and emotional devastation of this show.

Nicholls says the play reminds us that “we exist in this brief moment between two vast unknowns, birth and death.” As bright, cloudy days and glimmering, starry nights pass over the course of this show, we are not only reminded of these unknowns but that, as the Librarian (Melanie Bahniuk) says, “a lot happens in the middle.” Middletown is, in many ways, difficult to watch — the first Studio show to move me to tears — but this difficulty comes from its impossible, beautiful, stark realness. The audience feels like the astronaut (Diego Stredel) floating above this little green and blue ball of earth, reminded that it’s “so alive… so beautiful.”

Katherine DeCoste

Katherine DeCoste wishes she was a houseplant, but instead she's a third-year English and history honours student. When she's not writing reviews of plays or hot takes about fossil fuels, she also dabbles in poetry, playwriting, and other non-fiction, which she has published in various places. Other interests include making and eating bread.

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