The show’s listing on The Alexander Upstairs Theatre is accompanied with the caution: ‘mature and dark themes’. Despite their function, trigger warnings can prove to be enticing. Like dark chocolate, sometimes you crave something with a sharpness to it, a complexity that lacks the sweetness of the lighter alternatives. I found myself uncomfortably savouring every moment of this dark delight.
Bash is a collection of three one-act plays – a duologue and two monologues – written by acclaimed playwright Neil LaBute, directed by Tara Notcutt, and starring Alicia McCormick and Jacques Theron.
Each act reveals the violence that ordinary people are capable of when pushed, or perhaps not, through a character’s confession. The familiarity of the characters, who could easily be a friendly neighbour or colleague, and the lack of a reasonable degree of remorse is unnerving. Alicia McCormack manages to reach into her characters and retell their story as if they were her own words, while Theron performs his characters as if he were parodying them. Both have an excellent understanding of the script and I found myself engrossed in each story.
LaBute’s writing is exceptional and he deserves the acclaim that he has been awarded. There are no superfluous details. The audience is asked to pay attention to the title of a song and the exact colour of a flower: “Just the lightest shade of pink, the last shade of pink it could be before turning into something else.” Notcutt approaches her task with the same attention to detail, having an actor tear a small piece of paper at a certain point in her confession, not just to signal unease, but a great and irreparable change in the character’s life.
Alexander Upstairs Theatre is a plain black box and yet the imaginative and astute Notcutt, (respecting LaBute’s intention to agitate and unnerve the audience) has managed to disturb it in subtle ways. She has untacked the black curtains that line the stage, allowing the material to pile up on the floor, revealing the black wall behind them, these little disturbances are subtle but signal almost imperceptibly that something is off. Stanley Kubrick used a similar device for the same effect in The Shining by removing banal objects that were previously in the background of certain shots, just when the main character begins to lose his mind.
The three plays almost entirely consist of seated confessions that require very little movement or interaction with props, allowing the lighting design to play an important role. Rather than an instrument of illumination, Notcutt has elected to tell the story with very dim lighting from just one or two sources, leaving the actors practically in the dark. In the second act, a light is positioned on the floor from below, casting harsh shadows on the actors’ faces and turning them into monsters, recalling children holding torches under their faces while telling ghost stories.
Other storytelling devices include chairs dragged off stage rather than quietly picking them up, and the actors dressing and undressing each other onstage as a set up to the next act, rather than changing costumes backstage.
It is this astute attention to detail that I found so pleasing. Beginning with the apt poster of the play and ending with the last scene, Notcutt’s ability to create an unnerving atmosphere is impeccable. Even during events in the play that are familiar or banal, she never lulls the audience into complacency.Instead, we were on edge throughout the play, and yet still shocked when violent events are disclosed.
LaBute titled the acts ‘Iphigenia in Orem’, ‘A Gaggle of Saints’ and ‘Medea Redux’. The first and last acts draw on Greek myths. To be aware of the myths referenced adds a layer of understanding when approaching the play, but this knowledge also gives away the plot of the two acts. One of the characters mentioned in the play gives the gift of a book of Greek myths not once, but twice, and even teaches others about certain myths. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the playwright himself reaching out to the audience, urging us to learn about the myths and equip us with a better understanding of the play.
The content of Bash is very dark, but make no mistake: although certain lines may illicit giggles, this is by no means a dark comedy. It should be mentioned that Bash saw LaBute disfellowshipped from the Mormon Church.
In Greek mythology, violence is common and acceptable. When mortals mimic Gods, it is an act too forbidden to excuse. Perhaps more shocking is the extent to which lovers and partners in each act may be complicit. Were they blissfully unaware, or did they choose to remain wilfully ignorant?
According to LaBute, “…we could all be these people. We all have the capacity to be bad.” In LaBute’s world, violence is not just a possibility, but a very real option.
Bash runs at the Alexander Upstairs Theatre until the 15 March 2017.