Theatre Smith-Gilmour vs. Spontaneous Combustion
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Theatre Smith-Gilmour vs. Spontaneous Combustion

Alec Scott wrote a piece for this month’s Toronto Life called “Flop Culture” that heavily criticizes the Canadian theatre scene. In the piece (which was strongly rebutted by Factory Theatre Artistic Director Ken Gass over at BlogTO), Scott notably snipes that if he has to “watch another mime-inspired adaptation of a Chekhov short story, [he] may spontaneously combust.” This is almost certainly a dig at Theatre Smith-Gilmour, who have for almost a decade produced a series of… mime-inspired adaptations of Chekhov short stories (and usually to great critical acclaim). So, it’s kind of amusing that the show they premiere the same month as this dig is the first non-Chekhovian work they have performed in this country since 1999’s Chekhov’s Shorts (last year, a work they created based on the writing of Lu Xun premiered in Shanghai, but it won’t make it’s debut here until 2009).
The Mansfield Project is an adaptation of four short stories by Modernist wordsmith Katherine Mansfield, and adheres to Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour’s signature directorial style of mime, physical theatre, and effective minimalist design. The two director/creators are, as usual, also part of the cast, which is rounded out by frequent collaborators Adam Paolozza and Claire Calnan. The four vignettes vary in length and range from a story of two old maid sisters coping with their father’s death, to four children watching a duck’s decapitation, to a mother reminiscing about her son, to a really bizarre sequence featuring Gilmour shouting Victor Hugo poetry, Paolozza enthusiastically scratching an invisible horse, and Calnan playing a combination of a daydreaming schoolgirl and an orgasming horse at the same time.
As an adaptation of several Modernist short stories, The Mansfield Project is highly successful. The question this begs, however, is why do we need to see such an adaptation in the first place? The short story medium relies on the discovery and exploration of individual moments with layers of meaning. In a theatre, this is pretty much anathema to dramatic action. There is also something curious about the way Theatre Smith-Gilmour titles its plays, always reminding you that you are watching an experiment in adaptation. Could this be because nobody would tolerate a new play made up of several, unconnected and basically plotless vignettes if they did not have some kind of literary pedigree? Another problem is Michele Smith’s and Dean Gilmour’s insistence on acting in as well as directing their company’s shows. In The Mansfield Project, their broad, repetitive style is easily outclassed by Calnan’s more restrained approach and particularly by Paolozza, who brings complete differentiation (and handsomeness!) to his many roles within the show. Theatre Smith-Gilmour is capable of strong, beautiful work, which this show ably displays. But after a decade of experimenting with the short story genre, how about trying something different and bringing their striking visual style and deft execution to the direction of an actual dramatic script? The results would probably be fantastic.
The Mansfield Project plays at the Factory Studio Theatre until April 13.
Photo by David Leyes.