Festival Dionysia: A Review

“My dignity is not a monopoly,” states Matthew, standing bare-chested and heaving, illuminated by a single, stifling spotlight at the front of the stage. He is at once despairing and demanding, stripped to his barest, most raw humanity before the audience. He is so very vulnerable before our judgement, our silence and our numbers that overwhelm his singularity, and yet it is us who are pinned in place by his defiant, desperate gaze. We are suddenly confronted by our complicity in his story, our participation in the systematic alienation and dehumanisation of both Matthew and of those thousands of refugees he represents. What began as a comedy quickly unravels and suddenly our laughter at Matthew’s corporate plight doesn’t seem quite as harmless as we thought. The unexpected change in tone and the sometimes playful, sometimes interrogative awareness of the audience’s presence in “Wait” would come to set the tone for a lively night at The UBC Players Club’s Festival Dionysia, a collection of six minimalist one-act plays.

“Wait,” written by No Cilantro, the winner of the 2018 Play4Change Playwriting Competition, follows the story of exuberant office worker Matthew (Gabriel Salloum), the increasingly bizarre and humiliating tasks assigned to him by Mr. Braxton (Andy Nie) in a bid to find reason to fire Matthew to receive a raise, and Matthew’s ostracisation by his harried co-workers Jacob (Aiden Finn) and Paige (Hana Robertson). The comedy, as well as the conflict, centres on the wooden spoon Matthew gifts Jacob. Initially introduced as a comedic device, the wooden spoon very quickly becomes the tool of oppression, where Matthew and his kindness are deliberately interpreted as strange and uncomfortable, twisting difference into danger — a convenient scapegoat through which Mr. Braxton can climb the corporate ladder and a means by which Jacob and Paige can safeguard their positions in the company. A subtle story in an unlikely office setting, “Wait” confronts the conditions and hostilities faced by refugees in our tense global climate in a way that purposely disarms us. We are left discomforted and haunted, our complacency and complicity rendered explicit.

Slipping into a lighter tone, “Louis and Dave” by Norm Foster, a Canadian playwright, sees the titular childhood friends Louis (Jorge Rada) and Dave (Ryan Hollobon) in their Saturday ritual of cruising the streets and catcalling women with atrocious pick-up lines. Seated in the centre of the stage, Dave steering the imagined car they’re in and the soft, ambient sounds of a passing city suffusing the stage, Louis is thrown by the revelation of Dave being an “intellectual.” Louis becomes increasingly baffled as Dave reveals his interest in Albert Camus, Mahler, and other philanthropic and cultural pursuits that are a stark and ironic contrast to the classic womanising jock stereotype they sustain. Hurt by this revelation and the fact that Dave had not told him any of this before, what is initially posed as a simple ribald scheme to pull girls is peeled back to reveal the underlying significance and intimacy of this Saturday ritual. Encouraging high fives and playful, comfortable touches fracture into Louis’ stiff gestures and Dave’s uncertain attempts to bridge the sudden gap between them, gripping the disembodied steering wheel tightly as something as certain and reliable as a Saturday night drive begins to rapidly dissolve before him. It is only at the end, moments before the divide between them is entirely realised, that Louis changes his mind. Quietly, with a hesitant, small smile, he asks Dave: “Same time next Saturday?”

Whiplashing into a paranormal mystery, “The Snare” by David Lewis tracks a bizarre, elaborate scheme in which Sunny Jaeger (Gabrielle Le Miere) plots to kill the eclectic Moon (Aidan Klajnscek), the supposed “Vampire of Wittenberg” that haunted Sunny’s ancestor, Mika Jaeger. Moon, hollowed-out and towering as he drifts from point to point, pretends to host a historic ancestry show in an attempt to gain information on Mika. Recalling the epistolary format of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Sunny reveals to us, the “live studio audience,” and to Moon that in one of Mika’s accounts, he imagined a face in his window like a “pale, bright moon.” Momentarily enrapt at the confirmation of being known, of being a subject rather than a mere phantom, Moon is staked in the heart by Sunny. Sunny, sharp but so fixated in her goal, is bitten in the process, and is outraged not only at the ease with which the job was done but at her own foolishness. Collapsing to the ground, the two bodies slowly bleached of movement and sound beneath the soft hum of the stage lights, it is only the live studio audience that remains part of the act, with no laugh track to guide our reaction.

That stillness and quiet that captures the end of “The Snare” is swiftly destabilised by the chaotic unpredictability of Iain Coates’ “The Washroom,” an increasingly self-referential, self-reflexive play where recursion is not only cool, but head-splittingly inescapable. A journalism student (Gabriella Totino) tells her long-suffering linguistics major friend (Evie Gilbert) that she is attempting to write a review about a play called “The Washroom” by Jim Fischer (Ryan Hollobon). When asked what the play is about, the journalism student explains that it is a mind-numbingly boring play about a linguistics major asking her friend, a journalism student, what her review on a play called “The Washroom” is about, that ends with the linguistics major announcing that she has to use the washroom. Agreeing that the coincidence is strange, the linguistics major declares that she needs to use the washroom and leaves. The same scene is reiterated several times with slightly varying dialogue, some with the inclusion of Fischer himself. Fischer presents a perfectly outrageous character, loose-limbed, sauntering, and beguiling even in fuzzy orange slippers and smeared blue eyeshadow as he makes direct and unapologetic eye contact with the audience, claiming that his work centres from a fascination with the notion of an infinity of things, an infinity of stories, and the recursion inherent in infinity. The audience is left bewildered but entirely entertained in the unmitigated madness that is “The Washroom,” unsure where the play begins or if, indeed, it ever ends.

A different taste of chaos is articulated in Cathy Hull’s “Impulses.” The push-and-pull and agitated interaction by the personifications of the nervous protagonist’s (Amanda Lam) head (Sophie Dafesh) and heart (Kaleb Strandberg) makes manifest the protagonist’s inner turmoil. Attempting to help her navigate her arrogant boss (Aidan Klajnscek), her blossoming romantic feelings for her colleague Danielle (Molly Niblock), and her volatile relationship with the office’s photocopier, the head and heart are constantly in states of flux as each try, and often fail, to resolve conflict or complications. There is an immense physicality and a fitful but relentless sense of movement to the head and the heart on stage, a magnification of their essence that surrounds the relative stillness of the protagonist’s office environment. The head, stalwart and logical to a fault, seeks to dismiss the romantic feelings the protagonist harbours, unwilling to face the familiar repercussions of an anticipated rejection. The heart, dreamy-eyed and hopeful, is silenced but longing. Reconciled when the protagonist finally asks Danielle on a date, for a moment the chaos dissipates, and a sense of contentment floods the softly-lit stage.

Festival Dionysia ends with “Lives of the Great Waitresses” by the award-winning playwright Nina Shengold, in which four waitresses tell the audience what it’s like to be “one of the greats.” Yetta (Sophia Tavasieff), stone-faced and hip cocked, smokes a cigarette beneath a single spotlight. “I’m not an actress,” she states, her gaze cutting right through the audience. “I have a career.” From the darkness the bustling of a diner emerges, four women in pink uniforms and white aprons working in the background. Kay (Varsha Subramanian) details a recollection of one of the greats of history, Flo, and conflates religious imagery with waitress terminology in a rapid-fire, slightly frenzied monologue, followed by the drawling, salacious description of a rendezvous with a customer by Tammie Sue (Rachel Woodward). Yetta, rubbing feeling back into her feet, disparages the young upstart, Melissa (Gabriella Totino), and her various failures throughout the day, yet Melissa stands firm when it is her turn to tell her story. Inexperienced and privileged, Melissa nonetheless wholeheartedly believes in her ability to touch the lives of those she serves, words gentling when catching the eyes of the audience as she recalls the fragile, precious moments of being able bring a customer some joy in their otherwise unforgiving lives. Naïve yet so wonderfully optimistic, Melissa stands radiant and determined in the spotlight, offering bright, parting words as the show comes to a close.

A cacophony settled by stillness, despair tempered by hope, Festival Dionysia lays bare the humanity of its characters and its audience. In a whirlwind of motion and storylines, six plays come together to celebrate the truly brilliant platform that is the UBC Players Club.

Aiden is an English Honours (Literature) and art history minor student at UBC. A disgruntled horror writer and local cryptid, they are frequently found arguing about paranormal podcasts in darkened cafés and frightening baristas with their high tolerance for caffeine and regret. Can and will get into a fist fight with Shakespeare in the presumed afterlife.


Photo by Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash.

Photo by Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash.

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