These days, when masks are mentioned in conjunction with theatre, the average person will probably conjure an image of old-timey comedy and tragedy masks and leave it at that. If they’re thinking hard, something about ancient Greek drama might surface; certainly, nothing regarding modern mainstream theatre. We just don’t see masks on stage very often anymore. That’s why it’s a bit jarring to see them used in a play about something so quintessentially 20th century as life in the declining years of the Eastern Bloc.
In her directorial debut, U3 English major Gabriela Petrov seeks to use masked performance to add an extra dimension to Private View, a one-act play written by late Czech president Václav Havel back in his Soviet-era dissident days. The story, set in communist Czechoslovakia, is simple: writer Fred Vanek spends the evening with his friends Michael and Vera. We watch in real time as the married couple endlessly extol the virtues of their middle-class lifestyle – Vera’s cooking, Michael’s recent business trip to Switzerland, their home renovations, and their parenting skills. As the night progresses, Petrov’s addition – the masked performers – act out the emotions simmering below the surfaces of each of Fred’s hosts.
“It’s a very unique skill,” Petrov says of masked acting, a discipline that draws comparisons to dance and Movement Theatre. “The interesting thing about masks is that you want [the actors] to lose themselves in it while being extremely disciplined and controlled. There are rules to mask: you have to keep your eyes open all the time, hugely open. You can almost never blink, because you can lose your audience when you do that. You have to move in a very deliberate way.”
All of that attention to detail certainly comes through in the performance. Under the influence of Petrov and stage manager/choreographer Nicole Rainteau, they appear entirely human in the emotions they embody, but entirely animal in their mode of expression. The effect is by turns humourous and creepy. Kimberley Drapack turns Vera’s subconscious into a fluid, feline creature, all superiority and self-satisfaction. Harry Burton literalizes and amplifies Michael’s cheerful machismo. Together, they seem to inhabit a dimension about one half-step outside the reality of the play. They flit in and out of the action, sometimes prowling the stage, sometimes sticking a head out to silently comment on the proceedings.
Fascinating as they are, one can’t help but wonder if the masks are strictly necessary. Ross Ward and Annie MacKay make for an exquisitely matched Stepford couple as Michael and Vera. They cajole, proselytize, make criticisms of Fred both covert and overt, and above all put on a show. They perform their lives with the frantic gusto of two people trying to convince themselves of something, rather than their audience. Vera’s brittle smile and fluttery, fidgety body language don’t seem to have much to do with Michael’s earthbound, slightly naïve cockiness, but both performances allow for similarly exact proportion of artifice to transparency. There’s a palpable sense of folie à deux, like they’ve slipped down the rabbit hole wrapped securely in each other’s arms. Captivating as they are, the masks don’t convey much that couldn’t come from Ward and MacKay alone. We can clearly see when Michael is beating his chest, or Vera is purring with smug satisfaction. Does it need to be acted out?
Michael and Vera are linked by a shared desperation that makes more sense when the play is viewed in its proper context – pre-Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia. “It was a tough place to live and be calm and feel a sense of community,” Petrov explains. “Everyone was spying on everyone else, there was a lot of suspicion, and if you had a tiny community, a three or four person community, people cherished that so much. They wanted that one more person, those two more people to share things with, to share their real feelings with that they couldn’t do in a greater community, and by greater community I mean a block, a neighbourhood.” As she sees it, the couple is determined to welcome their “best friend” (as they frequently refer to Fred) into the refuge they’ve created, whether he wants to come or not.
This all makes for a rich, tense atmosphere, but the one character who we could use a little insight into, Fred, gets so little attention that he becomes an object of speculation. Scott Leydon makes the character an effectively relatable audience entry point into the strange, claustrophobic little world that Michael and Vera create. He provides a much needed voice of incredulity during the play’s more absurd moments, but never seems to obtain a personality of his own, overshadowed as he is by his hosts’ myopic flamboyance.
Private View runs from October 18 to 20 at Morrice Hall. The show starts at 8 p.m., tickets are $6 for students.