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Burning with innovation, drowning in incoherence

TNC’s new play might be better without Bukowski

“I do not like the human race. I don’t like their heads. I don’t like their faces. I don’t like their feet, I don’t like their conversations.” So speaks Charles Bukowski’s voice from beyond the grave, to open Tuesday Night Café (TNC) Theatre’s latest production, Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame. Taking Bukowski’s poems as the starting point, head writer and director Ali Vanderkruyk pulls audience members into a not-too-distant future that could easily be the fate of their own generation.

The first act is set in the year 2045. Four war veterans, Lane (Ruthie Pytka-Jones), Tate (Thoby King), Marty (Nicholas LePage), and Haydée (Jedidah Nabwangu), are sequestered in a care facility, under the influence of a drug called Ephembrium. The drug keeps what looks like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at bay by trapping them in the “perpetual present”; their memories blocked and emotions numbed.

Turning back the clock thirty years, the second act transpires in the bar where they initially enlisted and signed up for the drug. Their life-defining moments are shared with Lola (Ruby Iacobelli) and Chloe (Claire Morse), members of a resistance group dedicated to making them reconsider their decision to effectively leave the human race behind.

Bukowski was one of the uniquely idiosyncratic voices of the twentieth century in the U.S.. The greater portion of his work featured intensely personal accounts of his life as a member of the working-class, detailing his drinking, unsettling relationships with women, and the intense pain and drudgery of life. In the recordings of his riotous public poetry readings, he always growls down the microphone with a beer in hand, often threatening to jump off the stage and fight those who interrupt. Burning in Water turns Bukowski’s poems into monologues, stripped of the author’s voice and reshaped by Vanderkruyk’s characters.

Those familiar with Bukowski may find it hard or even confusing to reconcile such clearly autobiographical work with its new context. Despite the play’s ambition, the storyline overall fails to cohere, and the inclusion of Bukowski’s poems is confusing at times, coming at the expense of a clear narrative.

Despite the play’s ambition, the storyline overall fails to cohere, and the inclusion of Bukowski’s poems is confusing at times, coming at the expense of a clear narrative.

The first act also feels devoid of the dramatic development necessary to invest an audience in the action. The former soldiers are a miserable bunch – they complain about their poorly-made sandwiches, argue nonsensically, and recreate toy combat guns. Every jarring and offbeat moment in this act begs the question: what would make these people want to opt-out of being human? But the answer comes too late, making it difficult for the audience to connect to the characters for the whole first half of the show. While the second act is somewhat more engaging, it also features elements that remain unconvincing, such as the arrival of an anti-war movement in the form of the resistance group.

Still, the set and production create distinct and immersive atmospheres for both settings – first a clinical care facility with its checkered vinyl floors and then a bar littered with anti-war posters. There is also no lack of innovation in the production, either – a romantic dialogue plays out between a lonely young recruit and bar staff later in the play, depicted in a series of flirtatious text messages projected against the back of the stage.

The cast is similarly successful throughout. Nabwangu’s monologue as Haydée, in which she recalls the personal pain rooted in her inability to reach out and accept those who loved her, is as powerful as any of Bukowski’s original poems. Pytka-Jones as Lane also stands out with an energetic performance that can swiftly turn the play’s tone on a dime. Effortlessly moving from goofy and awkward extroversion to a bare vulnerability, her body movements echo these shifts – smooth in execution but jarring in their effect. A desperate attempt at intimacy between Nabwangu and Pytka-Jones’ characters gives the play some much-needed energy in its second act.

The play is clearly seeking to find a contemporary interpretation of Bukowski’s work. Vanderkruyk tells The Daily that the play was “a reappropriation more than anything, which is a thing many artists do nowadays and it is how many people interact with their world.” Moreover, her play projects current concerns onto Bukowski’s poetry. “I think that the preoccupations in that play are the ones he might have dealt with if he were alive currently,” Vanderkruyk says.

Bukowski’s strength as a poet surely lay in the immediacy and authenticity of his voice. Bringing the poems in this new context seems like a strange choice when Vanderkruyk clearly has a strong enough vision and innovative ideas of her own, even if they sometimes feel underdeveloped. Taking a production so far away from the source material, however, is certainly a brave choice; audiences should be prepared for a unique and engaging story that sometimes reaches to find its own voice.

Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame runs March 25 to 28 at TNC Theatre (3485 McTavish) at 8 p.m..