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article imageReview: 'Concord Floral' an eerie, powerful look at suburban T.O. teens Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Oct 19, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - It's hard to write good dialogue and monologue for teen characters. Adult playwrights and screenwriters often suffer from a lack of familiarity with the new lingo, yo, or resort to contrived, artificial “Buffy”-style irony and pop culture.
Lucky we have Toronto playwright Jordan Tannahill, who gives us a frank, honest depiction of the lives and struggles of suburban millennials struggling with their conscience in his bizarre and fresh new one-act play from Why Not Theatre, Concord Floral, which opened at the Theatre Centre on Thursday. At twenty-six years old, Tannahill is still young enough to have an accurate and unforgiving memory of the language and anxieties of the teenage years, but he's also talented and cultured enough to present them in a nuanced and original way (he was recently nominated for a Governor General's Award for his drama about LGBTQ youths, Age of Minority: Three Solo Plays).
If I've given you the impression that Concord Floral is a conventional, realistic drama, then prepare for a shock: some of the atmosphere and plot will remind you more of horror movies than of most independent theatre you've seen. Imagine Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron by way of experimental university theatre by way of I Know What You Did Last Summer. In a good way. Sometimes eerie and suspenseful, sometimes personal and profound, sometimes lyrical and surreal, Concord Floral is an ambitious work that aims for multiple levels.
Set in Vaughan and named after a real-life abandoned greenhouse that stood there for decades (until it was torn down in 2012), Concord Floral focuses primarily on two high-school friends, Rosa (Jessica Munk) and Nearly (Erum Khan), who discover what looks like a corpse inside the title house, where they'd stolen away to smoke a joint. Startled, Rosa drops her iPhone onto the body, where it appears to sink inside. The girls run away, Rosa buys a new cell phone and they don't tell any parents or authorities what they've seen.
But the following evening, Nearly gets a call on her phone displaying Rosa's old number. It turns out to be Bobbie (Jovana Miladinovic), a naive, formerly home-schooled outsider who has disappeared – and may have been the body's identity. Is Bobbie calling from the dead? Is this an elaborate prank? Is this really happening, or just in Nearly's imagination? The answer turns out to be more abstract than you'd expect; the twist is not that of a typical horror plot, but a revelation of guilt and denial on the part of Rosa and Nearly – and of all the kids.
The play also includes monologues by other teenage characters who attend the same school. One boy, Joey (Liam Sullivan), recalls his attempt to hook up sexually with a middle-aged man via Craigslist; an epileptic girl, Irene (Melisa Sofi), talks about a near-accident involving herself, her father and a lawnmower. Some actors even pose as neighbourhood animals and furniture with their own stories; Rashida Shaw, who acts as a sort of narrator by introducing each story, also performs a monologue as Concord Floral itself.
Developed over three years in workshops with cast members by Tannahill and his co-directors, multidisciplinary artist Erin Bruacher and choreographer Cara Spooner, Concord Floral is a true collaborative effort of different art forms. Artists and performers from all over the Greater Toronto Area contribute to this production, and despite the play's universal themes and emotions, it's scattered with local references. A light bar at the front of the stage floor is meant to symbolize Highway 407, as a border between the city and the northern 'burbs, and one of the script's funniest lines (for Torontonians, at least) bluntly compares death to Bessarion subway station. Equally genuine are the kids' words themselves, which could have descended into millennial emo whining in the hands of a more careless writer, but instead have a frequent ring of unrefined truth.
“All parents are a little stupid. They need to make themselves that way, or they'll go insane worrying about all the things they secretly know to be true,” one boy says. Other deceptively simple observations: “Life without beauty is unbearable,” and “Birds are talking all the time; we're just not paying attention.”
Familiarity with The Decameron may help you understand some of the play's structure and inspiration. Boccaccio's book, written in the mid-fourteenth century, is a collection of one hundred stories told within a framing narrative of seven women and three men who've taken shelter in an empty villa outside of Florence during the Black Plague. Concord Floral copies The Decameron's gender ratio among its ten cast members, whose characters are studying the book in school, but the plague turns out to be metaphorical in this case. It's about kids using the greenhouse, their own villa, as an escape from the realities of their own conscience and cruelties to each other.
The only arguable weakness in this production is the cast's mixed range – and it doesn't seem fair to bring that up, since Tannahill chose to use actors ranging from sixteen to twenty-one years old, all of them making their professional debuts. It does lend authenticity to a play about teenagers, but lack of acting experience is obvious in a few of them. For their own part, Munk and Khan are good, and Miladinovic convincingly balances eager-to-please innocence in flashback scenes with accusatory creepiness as Bobbie's “ghost”.
The technical side of this production stands out, especially Kimberly Purtell's lighting. While the play uses a minimalist set upon an Astroturf-style green carpet (meant to stand for suburban parkland, I think), Purtell's work contributes a lot in creating impressions of different settings – whether that's a school cafeteria or classroom, a front lawn, an asphalt parking lot or Concord Floral's empty interior; she also adds some truly frightening effects later on, through darkness, dimness and quick flashes. Christopher Willes' audio design incorporates field recordings of road traffic and other suburban sounds, made by the cast, adding to the feel of the setting.
Concord Floral may depict a millennial media world of teen gossip and bullying, selfies, iPhones and McFlurries, but its depth comes when that world's inhabitants are confronted by the moral complexities of adult life. This Jordan Tannahill kid has a bright future ahead of him; I hope only that in the future, he can expand his range of subjects beyond young people in the suburbs, to say fresh things about other kinds of people.
Concord Floral runs at the Theatre Centre until October 26.
More about Theatre, Drama, Jordan Tannahill, Toronto, concord floral
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