Surette premieres with a splash

By Alidor Aucoin on May 1, 2008

Roy Surette, who slipped into town unheralded from the Belfrey Theatre in Victoria six months ago to take over as the Centaur Theatre’s artistic director made his directorial debut at the end of March with The Mystery of Maddy Heisler.

Surette created a splash - literally - with his imaginative use of the Centaur stage, and his fluid, sentimental staging. But why he agreed to direct so sophomoric a confessional in the first place, combined with the largely pre-packaged season he’s announced for the Centaur’s 40th next year, raises eyebrows and sends out some disquieting signals about his artistic judgment.

Daniel Lillford’s play, The Mystery of Maddy Heisler, isn’t much of a mystery. It’s a mushy coming-of-age melodrama about how youthful indiscretion can return to haunt us in old age.

The plot revolves around a 17-year old Canadian navy cadet, Jacob Meisner (Gregory Prest) who has an affair with an enigmatic older woman (Patricia Summersett) who arrives in Nova Scotia’s Lunenburg county during the Second World War. The time frame fluctuates between past and present, and the flashbacks to the summer of ‘42, when German U-boats were threatening Canada’s maritime coast, were the play’s most convincing moments. Patricia Summerset, as Maddy Heisler, is deliciously seductive in her harlot-red, wet swim suit..

The mature Jacob Meisner (Kent Allen) became a failed writer in old age, whose interracial partnership with Myrtle, (Phyllis Gooden), rattled the maritime backwater community. As Meisner confronts the demons from his past, the play becomes overcrowded with sub plots and themes of racism, nazism, patriotism sense of place. Along the way, there are inexplicable lapses in the story. For example, the villain of the piece, a Klu Klux Klan racist, is an integral part of the mystery, talked about in the present, but strangely, he never appeared in any of the flashbacks.

The acting is uniformly competent, if somewhat restrained. Patrick Costello and Michael Chaisson as the youthful and old Earle Murphy, Meisner’s life-long friend, are exceptions, and worth mentioning as first rate scene stealers.

The script however was unconvincing, the dialogue stilted, and it didn't take very long for audiences to solve the so-called mystery and anticipate the cliché ending as the sun faded into the ocean and Meisner’s typewriter clacked into new-found gear.

Anne-Séguin Poirier’s set, a vast seascape with an expanse of glowing sky beautifully lit by Spike Lyne, was sublime - as beautiful as any Alex Colville painting.

And, the water on stage was real, unlike almost everything else about the evening. Like most ghosts, Maddy Heisler is one of those experiences that should have been seen and not heard.

Surette’s line up for the Centaur’s 40th anniversary season next year seems to be commercially safe. The most daring work is a production of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer prize winner, Doubt, about paranoia, moral uncertainty and pedophilia in a Catholic boys school. It hits the Centaur around the same time as the movie version starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as the priest and Meryl Streep as the accusing nun.

 Skydive is a play Surette directed with success in Vancouver for the Real Wheels Society and is bringing the show here for our benefit. Scorched is a Toronto import of Wajdi Mouawad’s play, Incendies, in translation. Linda Griffith's, The Age of Arousal is another Toronto import and Shirley Valentine, a one person show about a liberated blue collar British housewife on holiday in Greece is an undeniable crowd pleaser.

There’s also a premiere of Nova Scotia playwright Bryden MacDonald’s, With Bated Breath, a play that the posters suggest is clearly aimed at a gay audience.

For the first time in a long time, there’ll be no David Fennario, no Steve Galluci, no David Sherman, no Vittorio Rossi.

Just where Surette is leading us, and whether Centaur audiences will want to go along, remains to be seen.


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