What is it that you feel the urgency about? What do you want the world to know?
If you were an artistic director who can programme any three works per year that you want, and that way make any kind of statement that you want on any topic, would you go for a murder mystery set to music?
Larry Beckwith, the artistic director of Toronto Masque Theatre, would. And he just did, with the paper-thin piece Crazy to Kill, which opened last night at the Enwave Theatre (the remaining performance is today at 8pm). It’s a straight-forward murder mystery with nothing else to its name. I was trying very hard at every turn to detect any other kind of content in the text, but there is none.
The work was composed in the late eighties by Larry Beckwith’s father, composer John Beckwith, in collaboration with another eminence grise of Canadian performing arts, the late playwright James Reaney. The un-reflexive sentimentality in Beckwith the Younger’s notes in the printed program is almost endearing. There were all these sad puppets in his father’s basement that waited to see the stage again, he explains. And the “Beckwith/Reaney fans have pined for a revival”. Other than a lot of insider nostalgia, we are offered nary other reason for choosing to revive this piece. (Beckwith Jr. does say in the notes that of all of his father’s staged work, this one most resembles the masque, with its mix of art disciplines, including, NB, “a strong literary base”.)
The setting is a rural Ontario asylum for mental patients. There are three singers, two actors and a gaggle of puppets directed by both singers and actors. The nurses of the asylum start to get killed off, other accidents ensue. The customarily inept detectives and police sergeants come and go. The action is narrated, commented and propelled by the patient Agatha Lawson (the mezzo Kimberley Barber), whose work of fantasy and self-justification this whole play turns out at the end to be.
The Beckwiteany (to merge to tandem of co-creators into a Brangelina) is not adverse to clichés, so the elderly spinster Agatha is of course a mezzo, and the flamboyant, unpredictable, French-speaking, frilly-underclothes-wearing patient must be a soprano (Shannon Mercer, in one of her four roles). Unlike, say, Alan Bennett, the Beckwiteany doesn’t like its old ladies, so we observe several members of the female species inhabiting the pink ghetto (nurses, asylum patients) and being irritating to varying degrees. Agatha herself seems unable to stop talking/nagging. Barber’s voice is laden with vibrato, and conveys the matronly very well – which was, I expect, the goal with this character. Kudos for bravery to her, since she is in every scene and must move along this inert blob of a text from one scene to the next. Her energy does not subside. Phrasing is precise and diction clear.
Doug MacNaughton’s voice was in good form and full colour, but he was given a series of cipher characters to fill. Shannon Mercer was given comparatively little to sing, though much more to do. Opera directors, give this woman a mad scene already! In the brief moments of hysterical exuberance given to her frilly-clothed character, you could hear the voice itching for its 17-minutes-long bel canto mad scene.
A lot of the singing is set without any music accompaniment. Otherwise, music is supplied by the piano (Gregory Oh) and the percussion set which includes marimba (Ed Reifel). The score is mildly interesting, occasionally parodying topoi of genre film soundtracks (storms, suspense, and in one witty moment near the end between Agatha and a man bringing flowers, the melodramatic melodies). The music probably had greater oomph at the time of its original composing. Since in the intervening years we’ve heard from people like Juliet Palmer, James Rolfe, Ana Sokolović, Richard Marsella, Andrew Staniland, Ann Southam, Ben Mueller-Heaslip, John Farah – and that is just counting the local names that immediately come to mind and not going international – the score does not sound particularly exciting. It doesn’t help in its evaluation that it’s paired with the most underwhelming libretto seen on a Toronto stage in a long time.
Nowhere near funny enough to be a comedy, and devoid of even a hint of seriousness to make it a drama, Crazy to Kill rolls on through endless and directionless exchanges between the humans and the puppets. Somewhere round the middle you stop caring about who really done it, and start casting the puppets in your own invented drama. The puppet called Nurse Curry looks a bit like the Tafelmusik bass player and programmer Alison Mackay, for example. If you squint hard and stop listening, the puppet Agatha could pass for Tafelmusik’s maestra Jeanne Lamon, and the two could be discussing the next season for the orchestra. It wouldn’t kill us to do some Monteverdi occasionally, Miss Curry could be saying.
Reviving Crazy to Kill was an unusual decision by an arts organization known for its nimble and thought-provoking programming.
Now if you excuse me, I need to phone my mother and check with her what I should work on next.