At first there is that bunker-like interior which greets us as we pass behind the set to gain access to our seats. A sandy, earthy coloured space with a narrow opening at the back that looks out on what appears to be a desert stretching out to faraway hills. A lone tree with green leaves pops into view, The only living thing in sight. Perhaps an image of the woman herself who is caught in this set that reproduces her inner landscape : a dry drab sterile place where she would rather not be because it is all slowly devouring her.
Thus begins Tracey Ferencz’ voyage into the past of her character: a young woman from the big city who has settled in this small rural place where she moved to live with her husband and her three children. She is not happy here, although she tries to make friends and take an interest in her surroundings. And then, one day the neighbour died. Caroline was a good friend, perhaps even her alter ego. Was this death somehow her fault? Are we headed into one of those theatrical confessions we see so often on the Quebec stage? Will this be a long explanation, a cry of remorse and guilt?
Actually we might never know because the voice slides painlessly into a flashback on its own story and then we begin to wonder what this is all about. The portrait that appears to emerge is one of a commonplace, unimportant woman, preoccupied by the daily details of a banal, uneventful little life. She does the washing, cleans up, cares for the children, and tries to hang on as her husband has to travel for days at a time. Nothing particular. Nothing dramatic. No tension, no surprises, no conflict. Except for the fact that the woman keeps mentioning her list. She notes all the different kinds of activities she must do. There is the floating list and the urgent list, the everyday list and the special list. Everything is duly noted. Then suddenly the arrival of her neighbour with her unruly brood tosses it all up in the air because they make a mess, they don’t respect order. They invade the house until the terrible moment at the end when the playwright finally manages to hold my attention. Death will do that.
This play is very weak, precisely because it seems too naive, it has no tension, it sounds repetitive. However, what one quickly senses is that the real action is not exactly inscribed in the forward movement of the character. In fact the play refuses progression, movement and development. Something else happens and we do not see it because it seems that director, Brian Quirt did not appear to hear the emotional moments written between the lines. The play is weak but Brian Quirt’s staging made it appear even weaker.
The ‘List’ of which the woman speaks constantly is the clue. She makes a list to keep track of all her chores, but more than that, the list comes to represent stability and order in her life, It defines her movements, it helps her deal with this world that is devouring her. It gives meaning to her dull routine of cooking and cleaning. The list even becomes more important than her sick friend’s request for a doctor’s phone number because it was outside the list , therefore she didn’t pay any attention to it. The list becomes the obsessive authority that plunges her into her compulsive cleaning and wiping to keep the house clean, especially when the neighbours come by. The list draws her into waves of neurotic behaviour which helps her break free from time to time from her boring existence, except that no one can hear it, because none of that came across in this staging.
On the other hand, Quirt uses superficial stage strategies to try to liven things up because obviously he felt this monologue lacked action. We see her move and bend and use her body like a dancer, we see little pictures and shadows on the wall. There was terrible singing incorporated into the performance that was such bad taste. Director Quirt allowed the stage to be subjected to the most vulgar and stereotypical lighting effects. The bunker changing shades, the doors lighting up like flashy neon lights. All this made the play even worse. He gave us a smiling, well balanced, nearly childish female who runs around cleaning up after her children, but what we heard at a deeper level was the plea of a woman constantly thrown off balance by the invasion of her neighbour’s nice normal children who did not respect her neurotic need for order and who left dirt for her to clean up. Such a boring, commonplace, uninteresting life appeared to become a theatrical game in Quirts mind even as the young neighbour becomes pregnant and the two women develop a close friendship which leads to some very moving scenes at the end.
On one hand, we wonder why this play was chosen for the Governor Generals award for theatre, but on the other hand we also wonder if the play could be salvaged by a more insightful staging. As it is, The List is the not a particularly interesting evening of theatre.
Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht