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article imageReview: Reworked ‘Salt-Water Moon’ in Toronto more puzzling than profound Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Feb 27, 2016 in Entertainment
Toronto - It’s understandable when a theatre director wants to transform a familiar classic into something fresh and original. That’s an artist’s job: to create a unique, personal vision. But what if that vision makes the play almost unrecognizable?
This is the question that faces audiences for Factory Theatre’s new production of the late David French’s beloved 1984 play, Salt-Water Moon, which opened on Thursday. Those who’ve never seen or read French’s romantic two-hander before may enjoy this version on its own terms, while others may praise director Ravi Jain for reinventing the play for a new generation — with two visible-minority actors (Kawa Ada, Mayko Nguyen) taking the traditionally white-bread roles of Jacob Mercer and Mary Snow, while a third performer of colour, Ania Soul, provides original music.
Jain, an acclaimed Toronto writer-director who recently received the Canada Council for the Arts’ John Hirsch Prize, goes to great lengths to bring a fresh look and feel to this old CanCon warhorse, which he says he had never read or seen before deciding to tackle it. And since this production is part of a Factory series called Canadian Classics Reimagined, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Jain has radically stripped down and reworked the play, but some of his choices are baffling at best and distracting at worst.
A familiar text for many Canadian high-school drama students of the past generation or two, Salt-Water Moon is actually a prequel to several of French’s semi-autobiographical plays about the Mercer family, a Newfoundland clan settled in Ontario, including Leaving Home (1972) and Of the Fields Lately (1973). This play brings us back to a starry summer evening in 1926 in Coley’s Point, Newfoundland, where 18-year-old Jacob has returned from a year in Toronto and meets up with his old flame, prim Mary, on her front porch. But she’s now engaged to Jerome McKenzie, a wealthy and level-headed young schoolteacher, and she’s angry with Jacob for having left town and abandoned her so suddenly and mysteriously. Old wounds from World War I and other past tragedies open up sporadically as Jacob tries to woo Mary back to him (although his teasing and patronizing manner wouldn’t get him too far in 2016).
It’s a deceptively simple premise. In some ways, Jain wants to make it even simpler, but in others, he seems determined to complicate it too. He dispenses with all the traditional set, costumes and props, save the telescope Mary uses to look at the stars, and covers the stage floor with random candles while Ada and Nguyen wear casual modern clothes. The idea is for the audience to imagine the period and physical setting rather than have it recreated; I’m guessing Jain wants the universal and timeless qualities of the story to resonate with the viewer without locking it into a specific year or place. But sometimes, that spareness makes you feel as if you’re watching a rehearsal run-through rather than a full production.
More oddly, this is the first time I’ve ever seen a play in which the stage directions are treated as spoken text, and I mean that literally: Soul, who sits on a stool at stage right strumming a guitar, actually recites the text’s italicized stage directions as if French had intended them as narration. This technique might have been interesting if done on a limited basis; for example, the poetic opening description of the setting (“It has a solid feel about it, this porch...” etc.) does help the audience imagine the Snows’ front yard and the night sky in vivid detail. Other times, you feel as if you’re watching a TV show with audio descriptions for the blind. Particularly distracting is when Soul announces that Jacob is exiting “stage left”, or when the actors deliberately contradict the stage directions (Mary’s “cry that splits apart the night” comes out in a desperate whimper). Could French have imagined the play being so meta? I’m not convinced.
Ada and Nguyen give decidedly understated performances with believable sincerity and vulnerability, and yet I didn’t really sense any strong chemistry between them. These are former lovers who have been apart for a year, who have unfinished business to work out, who share a common past and heritage in their close-knit rural community, who supposedly adore and annoy each other with equal intensity, but there are times when they seem little more than casual acquaintances. Where’s the passion? The fire? Even under the surface? Ada’s at his best when being playful (mocking Jerome) or deadly serious (recalling the past), but he doesn’t always maintain the smart-aleck arrogance and confidence that drive Jacob’s character in the text. Nguyen’s Mary is likeable, but sometimes hard to read, and you may wonder why Jacob is going to all this trouble to win her approval.
The drive to make substantial acting roles more accessible to non-Caucasian performers is a noble one; the current #OscarsSoWhite boycott shows how important this issue is to a lot of people. But with plays like the Mercer series, in which Newfoundland heritage is so closely tied into the themes and context, is it really so wise and progressive to downplay that specific heritage? Perhaps Salt-Water Moon is just the wrong choice for this kind of revisionism. Although Jain’s production credits a dialect coach, Robert Gontier, Ada and Nguyen don’t bother with Newfoundland accents; not that I think the accents should be mandatory, but their absence makes the delivery of idioms like “What odds to me?” and grammatical quirks like “I wants you out of this yard” sound even more peculiar and out of place.
Maybe I’m overthinking it all. Or maybe I’m just not romantic enough to “get it.” There are moments of beauty and grace in this staging, to be sure, such as Soul’s gentle, folk-like music and the scene in which Mary guides Jacob’s arm slowly while teaching him about the constellations in the night sky. And French’s writing is magical on its own, no matter how it’s staged or delivered; it’s rife with wonderful rhythms and searing imagery (“It was like... I’d swallowed a hook lodged so deep inside it was there for good. For the first time, I felt what a fish must feel, with a foot on its head and his guts being ripped out.”).
I’m only wondering whether French’s original vision is coming through clearly to audiences seeing it filtered through Jain’s vision — and if not, whether that even matters anyway.
Salt-Water Moon runs at the Factory Mainspace Theatre until March 13.
More about Theatre, Toronto, david french, saltwater moon, factory theatre
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