This is a true heartbreaker. In Bear and Co’s latest offering at the Gladstone Theatre, Ottawa-based playwright Lawrence Aronovitch pens a script that delves into the grief of lost love. This world premiere is largely set in a tailor’s shop in 1070s New York, where being a publicly gay man is criminal. A young, nameless tailor works on a bespoke suit for a funeral. In the midst of his work, his mind wanders to his life’s greatest loves – the Duke of Windsor and a fiery Irish actor – who are now both dead, and suddenly conjures their ghosts onto the stage.
Director Joël Beddows creates a beautiful and dreamlike stage world that is fertile soil for Aronovitch’s script. Where the script hovers between memory, reality, and the unconscious mind, so too does the physical stage. It is softly abstract while still taking all its cues from The Tailor’s world. A couple wooden chair, a sewing mannequin, and a violin are the only objects on stage. Beddows’ restrained approach to set and staging allows the emphasis to be on the relationships. Relationships, love and grief are the soul of this production.
This is where set (Ivo Valentik) and lighting design (David Magladry) come into play. Together, they allow the stage world to hover in that liminal space between The Tailor’s unconscious mind, his memories, and reality. In this liminal space, The Tailor has a chance confront the ghosts that sit heavy in his heart, and stitch the rags of his life back together. The set is adorned with walls made from what looks like hanging, black bias tape. It is an object that belongs in The Tailor’s world, but is employed in a way that lets the audience know this is only a reflection of reality, and not reality itself. The lighting sets off the texture created by the hanging strips of fabric, but also transitions to a soft sepia wash when we slip again into The Tailor’s memories as he tries to resolve the past, his grief, and his uncertain future.
The Tailor (Matt Pilipiak) and Jimmy (Isaac Giles) are truly electric on stage together. Pilipiak as The Tailor is romantic and thoughtful where Giles as Jimmy is flirtatious and emotional. Their romance must be believable to sell Aronovitch’s concept, and is it ever. Their emotional reunion when The Tailor first conjures his dead love’s ghost onto the stage and their mountain story line reveals a deep bond, compassion, and care.
David Whitely plays the Duke of Windsor, The Tailor’s ex-employer and his other lost love, with a rigidity that borders on unnatural. The restraint in emotion and physicality may suit a closeted Duke confronted by his ex-lover, unfortunately, he comes across as more predatory than seductive in his initial moments on stage. The Duke reads as villainous and slimy—an impression that is hard to shake even though that is clearly missing the point of his role in The Tailor’s memories.
Beddows’ sparse approach to the stage world is the production’s strength. Without the benefit of being camouflaged in any way when they aren’t directly involved in a section of dialogue, all three actors are can only observe each other and comment on memories as they play out. It’s as if the three are working together to help The Tailor grieve and move forward with his life. However, the Duke in particular feels out of place in these moments. His face is perpetually flat, and that emotional anchor between he and The Tailor is not altogether clear.
Where the emotional and physical relationship between The Tailor and Jimmy is clear, the production doesn’t communicate that same bond between he and the Duke to warrant his presence on stage. In the initial moments with Jimmy, The Tailor holds him in a long embrace. In contrast, in the Duke’s first moments on stage, The Tailor leans away from him before putting even more distance between them. A more clear emotional and physical relationship between The Tailor and the Duke would better explain why he has been conjured onto the stage and his role in The Tailor’s mourning. The Duke is reduced to a barometer that allows the audience to understand the role Jimmy plays in The Tailor’s happiness and life. Ultimately, this is Jimmy and The Tailor’s love story.
It is a love story, and a heartbreaking love story at that. In the final moments, I starred fiercely at the violin on stage to avoid the impending tears that threatened to ruin my eye makeup. Anybody who has experienced any kind of grief will find a home in The Tailor’s journey.
Finishing the Suit plays at The Gladstone until March 11.
FINISHING THE SUIT
by Lawrence Aronovitch
directed by Joël Beddows
THE TAILOR – Matt Pilipiak
JIMMY – Isaac Giles
DAVID – David Whiteley
Stage Manager – Lauriane Lehouillier
Set Design – Ivo Valentik
Costume Design – Angela Haché
Lighting Design – David Magladry
Sound Design – AL Connors
Assistant Stage Manager – May Abu-Shaban