Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region  

Don’t we all have an inner Jerry? In so many ways, Edward Albee’s infamously volatile, transient character Jerry captures our frustrating inability to feel at home in a strangely formulaic world. He reveals the alienating sensation of being a human amongst other humans. Moreover, that I even left the Carleton Tavern with that in mind is a fine tribute to the work of director Lisa Zanyk and a nimble trio of actors who’ve taken on Albee’s At Home at the Zoo.

The double-bill features two one-act plays that have been careful sewn together by the playwright. The second act is a stand-alone play, Zoo Story, which he wrote while in his late twenties. Considering the piece well-formed but “incomplete”, Albee fleshed out Peter’s character in a prelude of sorts called Homelife when he was in his 70s. The two short pieces now play as a two act performance that exposes an uncomfortable portrayal of the middle class.

Critics have noted that the interplay of Homelife and Zoo Story reveal a portrait of the playwright at two distinct stages of life. Sequentially, the latter is Albee’s first play and captures youthful angst, anti-establishmentarian impulses, and nihilism. The former, written as a companion piece over 50 years later, delves into a more middle-aged mind set. The enemy there is complacency, disappointment, and repressed passions. Juxtaposed, these two one-act plays have an enthralling symmetry. In Homelife, Peter, a middle-aged textbook publishing executive, is flaccid, bored, and has a relationship with his work that borders on the absurd. Like Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill, Peter hopes with all his heart that the textbooks that he pours countless hours of his life into have some intrinsic value. It is an unmistakable criticism of the complacency that fuels the middle class.

In Zoo Story, Peter (Louis Lemire) is met by Jerry (Matt Smith) who is his antithesis. Jerry bubbles with volatile energy. Where Peter lives in a carefully constructed bubble (a menagerie, made even more cartoonish by the fact that he owns two of everything), Jerry is transient and deeply passionate about the nature of the world in front of him. Both scenes feature broken attempts at communication, and both end in ambiguous acts of violence inflicted with shocking naivety through Peter’s hands.

The company adheres to a Poor Theatre aesthetic by keeping set and costuming uncomplicated, and bringing the action of a play into a non-traditional space to lessen the separation between actors and audience. It isn’t easy to stage a play in a bar. Acoustics and sight-lines aren’t necessarily safe-guarded. But it works. Even though the ambient bar and kitchen sounds are disharmonious with the actual settings of the play, it offers the performance a meta-theatrical lilt. The perfect fit for this very literary piece of theatre.

My only trepidation with the setting is the fact that the staging is quite stagnant. The space itself is narrow and long, yet, the action is stuck in the front corner of the space. It leaves one desiring a greater sense of that interplay between actors and audience in this unconventional setting. In terms of the staging, I’m left with the sense that there seems to be a world of possibility yet to be explored.

Zanyk’s work as a director starts with an ability to support the actors to ground the characters’ larger-than-life admissions into believable impulses, and then, to find the truth behind their harry personality quirks. And they are, truly, three-dimensional beings who will make you squirm with familiarity. Zanyk steers the performance so that it hovers just on the verge of darkly absurd, with its roots firmly in the workaday world of the average middle-class mind. What’s more, the production is well balanced between first and second act. They make sense alongside each other, and not just because it’s a great text.

A chief contributor to the darkly absurd stage world is Jennifer Ford as Ann. She is totally gripping. Ford’s Ann drips with irony, and skirts the line between being a contented suburban housewife and a self-loathing prisoner of her own making, armed with a sardonic sense of humour.

Actor Smith manages the quick shifts which are characteristic of Jerry’s unhinged mind with a nimble attention to detail. The type of lifted, hammering energy that slowly breaks away at Peter’s defenses are treated with great care to not go too far. Jerry is believable, and just relatable enough that he may speak to your inner world-weary recluse. Moreover, he brings a great physical presence to the role. Smith’s mannerisms are so carefully orchestrated and help to sell Jerry as as a well-rounded, multi-dimensional character.

On the other hand, actor Lemire as Peter isn’t altogether captivating, but perhaps that’s the point. In the context of this performance, and flanked by two effervescent characters, Peter is ho-hum, dreary, and easily loathsome. He’s a supporting character in his own life. It’s an interesting interpretation of the piece. But while the text reaches moments where Peter does break through his hum-drum existence—where his animal nature is revealed—Lemire’s delivery is still quite repressed.  The reveals become none-too earth shattering. Here, Peter is always grounded in his stagnant role as a textbook publishing executive who has killed his last passion years ago. He will live out his purgatorial life, bored and boring.

Homelife buzzes with repressed energy, where complacence is punctuated by outbursts of dark fantasies. Zoo Story contrasts Peter and Ann’s uncomfortable boredom with a radical worldview, where dark fantasies become reality.

There’s a simple joy in seeing theatre in non-traditional spaces. It’s made all the better when you leave the space with the work lodged firmly in your mind. This creative team have orchestrated a pointed and passionate presentation of Albee’s work, bolstering Albee’s criticism of the complacent nature of the middle-class. And still, its resounding note is fundamentally about the absurdity of human nature.  It’s a performance that will live under your skin.

At Home at the Zoo plays at Carleton Tavern from Feb 1-4 Wednesday to Friday at 7pm, Saturday at 5pm and Feb 8-11 Wednesday to Friday at 7pm, Saturday at 5pm. It will also play at Irene’s Pub in the Glebe on February  22 at 7pm.