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Thursday Theatre Review: The Mansfield Project

Let me paint this picture for you: a man who looks suspiciously like 'Doc' from Back to the Future is rolling on the floor, yelling something in French. Another man is washing an invisible horse. A woman, dressed like a schoolgirl, is enjoying what the man is doing to the invisible horse. Really enjoying it. Taken together, it's more than a little nuts.

Just another day at the office for Theatre Smith-Gilmour. The innovative theatre company is back with The Mansfield Project, a stage adaptation of four short stories by Katherine Mansfield. The show is chockablock with Smith-Gilmour's trademark theatrical kinetics, a physical performance style that emphasizes emotion and image over story. Watching it is like taking a trip to a strange new world. And when you get back, you're not exactly sure what you've just seen.

The Mansfield Project flenses away everything but the emotional essence of its source material, creating a laconic dreamworld punctuated by silence and frenetic movement. The effect is eerie. We're not so much watching characters in a narrative, but witnessing the combination and confrontation of emotions. By boiling down Mansfield the writer's complicated relationships and observations, the performers create a focused little lightning bolt of energy and some exhilirating theatrical moments.

At times, this rendering of Mansfield's prose can go a bit too far. Smith-Gilmour's adaptation of The Carnation- the madness I described above- is a good example. So much has been removed, so much left open and hanging for the audience to decipher, it isn't really a story anymore. It is a ten minute emotional battle royale, a lot of volume and physicality, but precious little narrative. Although The Carnation, in its original form, is a kind of 'moment-in-time' story, it is linear. It contextualizes itself for the reader. The adaptation, on the other hand, compresses this progression into one seething mass, and then amps up Mansfield's understated emotional landscape to cartoonish proportions. It is an interesting spectacle, but ultimately it is only spectacle. Here, the audience needed more Mansfield and less Smith-Gilmour.

Still, this kind of performance is Smith-Gilmour's oeuvre, and they do it very well. Both Dean Gilmour and Michelle Smith bring incredible precision and detail to their characters. Their stripped-down ethos is evident in their acting style, and they have a remarkable ability to do more with less. Smith and Gilmour are also fortunate in their co-performers. Adam Paolozza and Claire Calnan are the young energy to Smith and Gilmour's experienced auteurship. This is not to say Calnan and Paolozza don't have the same chops. Both actors at times demonstrate greater focus and character depth than their more senior counterparts.

The Mansfield Projectalso applies the essentialism of its storytelling to the stagecraft. There is no set to speak of, save several chairs and a scrim. Lighting designer Kimberly Purtell does a nice job of compensating for the lack of setpieces, guiding the audience through changes of locale and mood with her expressive lights. Overall, the production takes a backseat to the performances. The company seems to have accepted set, sound and lights as a necessary evil. They seem more than happy to create the soundtrack and setting with nothing more than their voices and bodies.

While the success of Theatre Smith-Gilmour's adaptation of Katherine Mansfield is somewhat spotty, it's hard to deny the company brings something totally unique and interesting to the Toronto stage. It's a credit to the singularity of their vision that I still find it difficult to articulate exactly what I thought about the show. I suspect I enjoyed it. And I suspect you will too.

The Mansfield Project continues at the Factory Theatre until April 13. For tickets call 416 504 9971 or visit www.factorytheatre.ca.

Photo: Adam Paolozza, Dean Gilmour, Claire Calnan and Michele Smith. By David Leyes.


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