Each winter, the University College Drama Program mounts a production featuring its graduating class-a select group of young actors who have proven their talent and work ethic over the course of three years of training and a series of nerve-wracking auditions that prune theatre hopefuls from the program’s performance classes each year. They are, one might say, the crème de la crème of theatre on campus, and the graduate showcase is their chance to prove that they have what it takes to make the leap out of the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse (where the UCDP is housed) and into the professional ranks.
This year, director Katka Schroth chose Quebec playwright Michel Marc Bouchard’s The Orphan Muses as the vehicle for her graduating class. Set in the town of Saint Ludger de Milot in the 1960s, the play chronicles the reunion of the eccentric Tanguay siblings as they gather at their family home to prepare for the return of their long-absent mother.
Eldest sister Catherine (Kearsten Lyon) has been stuck at home since their mother’s affair with a fiery Spaniard led her to abandon her children 20 years ago. Youngest sibling Isabelle (Katherine Ward) is a child stuck in the body of a 27-year-old woman, mothered to death by the uptight Catherine, yet deeply attached to her flighty, artistic brother Luc (Alistair Scott and Zachary Shields), who tries vainly to keep their mother’s memory alive by dressing up in her old clothing. Lesbian soldier Martine (Sarah Romeiro) is the last to arrive, having fled to Germany to escape the memories of her twisted family’s past. When a mysterious phone call from a woman claiming to be their long-lost mother brings the siblings together after many years, family scandals are dredged up and secrets are slowly revealed.
This production is clearly meant to be a showcase for the young cast, and for the most part, Schroth’s deft direction keeps the focus on the actors. The choice to have two performers play the role of Luc-switching off at some points and appearing on stage together at others-is strangely wise, highlighting the character’s oddities and the multiple facets of his personality.
Schroth also makes clever use of Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt, or alienation effect, intentionally drawing the audience out of the stage action with moments in which the actors address the audience and crew members directly, call each other by their actual names, and attempt to end the play early to avoid revealing the not-so-happy ending. These moments serve not only as comic relief, but they also force the audience to think more deeply about the nature of reality in the play itself-are the characters telling the whole truth, or are they recreating reality to suit their own purposes? The one directorial miss is the production’s use of a large multimedia screen, which serves many purposes, yet is often an unnecessary distraction.
With the show’s success riding squarely on the ensemble’s shoulders, the cast tries hard to make the most of their extensive training. Sarah Romeiro’s bristling Martine and Alistair Scott’s delightfully pretentious Luc are the standouts of the cast-Romeiro’s rigid physicality and commanding voice demand attention, and Scott skilfully makes the most of every word and gesture to make his Luc the most fascinating of the siblings. While Kearsten Lyon plays Catherine as shrewish to the point of caricature, she is able to find a few moments of grace in the latter half of the production, unlike Katherine Ward’s Isabelle, played with an affected, little-girl tone of voice with grating mannerisms and overly exaggerated line delivery.
Will we see any of these graduates on stage at the Factory or Tarragon any time soon? If Romeiro and Scott wish to pursue acting as a profession and are willing to continue working as hard as they must have done this year, the world is their stage. For their castmates, however, only time will tell if this production will end up being the height of their theatre careers.