Photo: David Hou. Maev Beaty and David Patrick Flemming.
STRATFORD, Ont. — Hanna Moscovitch’s new play, Bunny, had its world premiere at the Stratford Festival the other afternoon — and this was a cue for theatre staff to go all cutesy for the occasion by wearing rabbit ears on their heads.
Given that we were definitely not in for a cosy afternoon of G-rated entertainment in the company of Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, it was more than a little bizarre to be confronted by ticket takers decked out like participants in a kiddies’ picnic. Or perhaps this was intended as some sort of ironic statement on the numerous sexual couplings we would soon be witnessing in the intimacy of the festival’s tiny Studio Theatre.
“Let me tell you about Sorrel,” announces Maev Beaty, the resourceful actress who will be guiding us through this saga of unquenchable sexuality and unfulfilled needs. Beaty is actually portraying Sorrel herself, although the script requires her to discuss her character in the third person. And Sorrel’s nickname is “Bunny” — hence the title — and that comes from that frightened rabbit-in-the-headlights look she gets when she’s in situations where her lack of social skills leaves her unable to cope.
That lack leads to insecurities that continue to undermine her even after she flowers into a ravishing teenager. So she tries to compensate by making herself available to horny young males.
Sorrel will be a familiar component of many people’s high school memories — the lonely girl who puts out in an effort to belong. But in Moscovitch’s play, her compulsive sexuality stunts her ability to love and connect with others in a meaningful way.
There’s interesting stuff happening here — at least there should be. And playwright Moscovitch’s dramatic language can be provocative and engaging. So what’s going wrong? We get back to Beaty’s work in those early scenes as she brings quirky substance to the character of the young Sorrel. We hear about her shy and solitary childhood, her left-wing parents, her own passion for the Victorian literature that constitutes an escape for her from the realities of adolescent angst and later becomes the lynchpin of her adult academic career. And, of course, she won’t shut up about her sexual conduct.
This is intended as fun time for us, before the play asks us to take things more seriously. Beaty — knowing, candid, sardonic, self-questioning, mocking — is an enjoyable confidante as she gets us into Sorrel’s head, even though Kimberly Purtell’s harsh lighting design does her no favours. And although there are other characters who show up on stage and interact with Sorrel — especially sexually — they often seem like unnecessary interruptions in what is essentially a cunningly orchestrated stand-up routine. The monologue form does provide a particular comfort zone for Moscovitch as a writer, and that factor also dominates Bunny. But the play’s efforts to open up and go beyond these constraints are sometimes uneasy. Still, Sarah
Garton Stanley’s fluid production seeks to ensure that everything meshes, and there are valiant efforts by the actors portraying various males in Sorrel’s life to get beyond mere brush strokes in their performances.
As a youth named Angel, David Patrick Flemming has enough enigmatic allure to trigger a lustful encounter with Sorrel in a canoe — although anyone with any experience of canoeing may well think that this tipsy environment constitutes wishful thinking in the part of playwright and director. Emilio Vieira fulfils the necessary requirements for Sorrel’s jock boyfriend, while still giving us a type rather than a person, Tim Campbell seems a bit flat as the guy she makes the mistake of marrying, but Cyrus Lane, working with very little, is excellent as the married professor infected with an uncontrollable passion for her.
But are these people really anything more than props who are thrown into the brew in order to make this seem more like a play than the one-woman show it probably should have been in the first place? Ultimately, we keep being drawn back to Sorrel’s own troubled prism and her efforts to impose a bit of tough love on herself. The arc she’s passing through involves self-knowledge, also self-acceptance — and. in the world of drama, that process is as dramatically valid now as it was in the theatre of centuries ago. But it becomes clear that Moscovitch seeks some kind of closure for Sorrel by presenting her with the possibility of one genuinely meaningful relationship. That, significantly, is with the generous, warm-hearted, non-judgemental Maggie, portrayed here with sensitivity and serenity by Krystin Pellerin. But the decisive moment in the relationship needs more fleshing out than it receives here. It seems curiously limp and perfunctory. There’s no real pay-off. The final moments fizzle.
As a play, Bunny also seems to aspire to weightier, more philosophical, concerns. It’s no accident that the adult Sorel continues to indulge her love for Victorian fiction by now teaching it. Does this leave her unprepared for the real world? Perhaps, although the script does not convince. Furthermore, those who see Sorel and her story as some kind of riposte to the fiction of Jane Austen may be stretching comparisons too far; Austen, although undeniably a 19th Century novelist, died 20 years before Victoria ascended to the throne.
It’s Maev Beaty’s job to find some unity in difficult material — to start with something that seems like a series of comedy-club turns and then to try and convince us that beyond the one-liners and erotic acrobatics, something more serious and substantial is happening.
Yet, you can’t help thinking that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein ll were able to state matters more succinctly and with less angst 73 years ago when Oklahoma hit the boards and a comically rueful Ado Annie informed us that “I’m just a gal who can’t say no . . . .”
(Bunny continues at the Stratford Festival to Sept. 24. Ticket information at 1800 567 1600 or stratfordfestival.ca)