'among men' World Premiere by David Yee
Masterful storytelling and performance in Factory Theatre’s opening night world premiere of David Yee’s ‘among men’.
To see mastery of the above-mentioned crafts intelligently adapted into a soulful production that left me wordless for a few minutes at the conclusion was exhilarating.
It took me over an hour on the train ride home just thinking, remembering, and pondering how truly moved an audience member can be when a play is handled with such minute and detailed finesse in many technical components.
The world premiere of David Yee’s ‘among men’ at Factory Theatre did just that. His richly charged script of striking poetic images and real human emotions remains with me as I write this article today. Directed with a consummate vision of grace, humour, and compassion by outgoing Artistic Director Nina Lee Aquino coupled with passionate performances by Ryan Hollyman as poet Al Purdy and Carlos Gonzalez-Vio as Milton Acorn made the world of Canadian poetry become a personal living and breathing entity for me.
I think it’s obvious I’m going to tell you to get to see this.
It is 1959, Ameliasburgh, Prince Edward County, Ontario. Al Purdy and Milton Acorn are finishing an A-frame cabin on Roblin Lake. Many superficial scripted elements at times hinder the progress in completion of the A-frame which provides for some of the wonderful humour of the piece. Pay careful attention as Hollyman at one point tries to fix the cabin flooring. It’s a comical tour de force to watch.
While trying to finish the cabin and through their discussion on the state of Canadian poetry in the coming modern era, we see Al and Milt speak about many of the issues related to writing in general and to poetry. Early in the play, Al anxiously waits for a letter regarding his sending a play to the CBC while later Milt has received an invitation to attend a conference in Kingston.
An initial thought to begin. Playwright David Yee succinctly captured the humanity behind Purdy and Acorn. During my undergraduate years many moons ago, for some reason (possibly my naivete), I used to place poets and authors in the same category as performers. For me, these individuals were to be highly regarded because there was something extraordinary about these artists and the lives they lead.
Thankfully, playwright Yee rightly nixes that idea. Pay attention all undergraduates who may place artists on a pedestal of high regard and adulation because we’re all flesh and blood flawed human individuals underneath. Director Aquino smartly never allowed the men’s imperfections to venture over the top.
Respectively, Ryan Hollyman and Carlos Gonzalez-Vio viscerally reveal Al Purdy and Milton Acorn as two uniquely distinct true to life men who sometimes get rather graphic in their talk with each other as Gonzalez-Vio so aptly demonstrates at the top of the show. As Purdy, Hollyman superbly listens intently to this sexual rambling before flinging a nasty zinger back to Gonzalez-Vio which resulted in uproarious laughter from the audience. Rest assured though this production is not just mere flinging one-line insults back and forth a la Neil Simon’s Oscar and Felix and thank goodness for that.
What made this opening night production so memorable for me is the fact both Hollyman and Gonzalez-Vio demonstrated a master class in focused listening to each other, hearing each other, and then responding in a genuine believability. These two gentlemen are naturally, fully, and completely grounded in their characters and made me believe every single uttered word in what was said and what was not said in those blissful moments of silence between them.
Another touching element of this production was the definitive care taken by Aquino and Messrs. Hollyman and Gonzalez-Vio to show that, yes, grown men are humans who can and do experience traumatically emotional life impacts just as much as women. There is quite a heartfelt moment of male friendship in true master class performance downstage centre between the two that, for me, tugged at my heart strings as a hush filled silence of respect enveloped the auditorium. I truly did feel that synchronistic chemistry between the two performers at that moment.
Joanna Yu’s stunning two level Set Design of the A-frame cabin is a marvel to behold. It is a work in progress resplendent in the odour of sweat, cigar stench that Gonzalez-Vio smokes and the drinks after drinks of whiskey and badly brewed coffee the two men consume. When I sat down in my seat, I didn’t open my notebook right away to write notes as I just wanted simply to revel in looking at this mammoth creation which Aquino noted in her audience address before the show began.
The set is angled which provided perfect sightlines from my seat. There is a wood burning stove which amply is utilized throughout the play. Just slightly off-centre stage right is a table with bottles and other props of newspapers and stuff haphazardly thrown around. Up stage left balled up papers can be found in a corner haphazardly thrown there.
A well-worn easy chair which probably should have been thrown out years ago is angled and placed right behind the table. There is a well-worn rug placed underneath the easy chair which probably should have been thrown out as well but adds character to the fact the cabin is that proverbial work in continuation. On stages right and left, props are hanging from strings which become part of the action.
Yu’s costumes appropriately reflect the differing characters. Gonzalez-Vio’s Acorn wears a red lumber jack looking shirt with work dirty work pants. Hollyman’s Purdy wears what appears to be grey looking dress slacks, dress shoes and a white pinned striped show from what I could see.
Michelle Ramsay’s Lighting Design warmly enclosed the playing space of the cabin akin to a natural light setting. I liked Christopher Stanton’s selection of aural newscasts that I heard during the preshow sounds as the audience entered. At one point I thought I heard elder Trudeau Pierre speak. From what I can recall, these newscasts of the sixties began to focus on Canada’s emergence on the world stage in key areas of culture. The song ‘Lonely Boy’ took on a new meaning for me as I left the auditorium.
Final Comments: Nina-Lee Aquino concludes his tenure as Factory’s Artistic Director. There’s a line from the play I scribbled down in my book in the dark hoping I would be able to read it later:
“A poem feels unfinished even when it is.”
‘among men’ doesn’t feel unfinished when it concludes. Yee’s script says what needs to be said. Instead, I’ll remember the line: “I remember it. I remember the good ones. ”
Aquino, Hollyman, Gonzalez-Vio and the entire creative team conclusively and unquestionably reflect what needs to be said while performing a good one.
Get to see this.
Running time: approximately 100 minutes with no intermission.
Production runs to May 15 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto. For tickets, visit www.factorytheatre.ca or call the Box Office (416) 504-9971.
‘among men’ by David Yee
Directed by Nina Lee Aquino
Set and costumes designed by Joanna Yu
Lighting by Michelle Ramsay
Sound design and composer, Christopher Stanton
Cast: Gonzalez-Vio, Ryan Hollyman