Bunny by Hannah Moscovitch & Mistatim (concept by Sarah Laronde) and Instant by Erin Shields

Nov 20, 2020

Hanna Moscovitch’s impressive beginning as a playwright with East of Berlin, The Russian Play, and Little One has not been fulfilled, or at best, fitfully so. With these plays, perhaps especially East of Berlin, she seemed capable of anything with her dramatic instinct, searching technique, and sharp, often funny, relentless dialogue. Plays which seem to be initially soliloquies but drew in other characters in a way that makes the solo a duo, trio or quartet were startling at their best. Her initial themes—what is guilt in a family, in a society, and how complicit are we in it—continue, but if her recently published character study, Bunny, is an indication they haven’t deepened. Instead of being dramatically laid out to challenge an audience, Bunny relies on a not very compelling, though funny, story which points one way even as the playwright tells us it really is about something else. “Let me tell you about Sorrel”…opens the play, but it is Sorrel who is narrating in the third person. As a professor of Victorian Lit, with a particular love for Middlemarch, perhaps the protagonist feels the distancing is necessary. But we never get to an “I” identity which from the start alienates the character from us. What are we told and see dramatized? We are led through her life from a geeky childhood with her (never seen) rigidly politically correct Marxist professor- parents to a sudden transformation at seventeen into the body of a sexually charged young woman. The other girls frown at her easy manner, so to speak, without her being in love, or at least drunk. Her relationship with a boy her age at this early point in the play is the best part of it, clear eyed, funny, almost whimsical, especially since it would be easy to caricature the boy with his high school football persona. She moves on to an affair with a married professor, before marrying a businessman—a strike at her parents no doubt. The growing up of Sorrel could be an alternative title but the Bunny moniker given to her by Maggie, a woman who ‘gets’ Sorrel, labels her an eternal adolescent. Sorrel’s relationship with Maggie is, we are told, the most important in her life—her husband, Carman, is Maggie’s brother—but we never see that or feel that it is, finally, the only one which matters since the line-up of men provides the main story of the play. In fact, her last sexual sortie is with a young student who is a friend from a family that lives on the lake close to Maggie. This is a betrayal of Maggie and Carman, and Sorrel knows it. At this point we have Maggie dying of cancer through the last Chekov-tinged elegiac part of the play. This portion with regret enfolding Bunny is presented well, but, unfortunately, it won’t work since it is ill- fitted to what we have seen before—Moscovitch wants transformation but Sorrel doesn’t grow up no matter how much the playwright wants her to do so. Finally, would it matter what happened to Maggie? There’s no indication of change despite Bunny’s regrets.

Moscovitch’s power as a playwright is sporadically seen and felt throughout in its humour and atmospheric milieu. For most playwrights that might be enough, but one feels protective of Moscovitch as a writer. She has given the theatre a strong infusion of thought and excitement which we all need. We don’t get it in Bunny but even a small failure in this playwright’s case is worth the effort to experience.

By Hannah Moscovitch
Playwrights Canada Press, 2019, 108 pages, $17.95
ISBN: 978-1-77091-925-9 (softcover)

The Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA), if we may capitalize it, in Canada has an impressive history—and its list of impressive plays is long. A brace of plays by Toronto playwright, Erin Shields, Mistatim,and Instant, deserve a prominent place in the current canon but their strengths in an odd way display the weakness of a number of plays for young audiences. Overall this is a good thing; perhaps TYA is on its way to a deeper, fiercer presentation of life which these plays offer up to a point. The issue is complex but might be stated this way. Simply put, despite the best intentions of putting the young audience first much of the writing for TYA needs the nod of parental approval. This is unstated but the compromise of perhaps most plays for TYA is there. It’s not that the young audience, especially teens, isn’t up to a starker reality—it lives it—but for the predominantly middle-class parents of the TYA audience, happy endings, or at least promise of a ‘better future’, are in order. As the forward to the plays by Stephen Colella of Young People’s Theatre, Toronto reads, “These plays are honest about the world. At the same time, they are careful not to ignore that hope is central to the lives of these young people. Hope’s glow may be dull …but the light is never extinguished.” (X) Hence any specific “problem” stated in TYA pieces is faced but only so far. Erin Shields goes as far as one can but the clear dramatic punch which echoes strongly in these plays is pulled. This is less so in Mistatim, her play for younger children, but unfortunately for the impact it should make in her terrific play for teens, Instant, it mutes its power as theatre.

Mistatim is a horse, unbridled and wild, that lives on a ranch bordering a First Nations reserve. He is given the name by an eleven-year-old girl, Speck, from the reserve. Her ‘horse whisperer’ ability is clear, and Mistatim responds to her call. On the ranch lives another eleven-year-old, Calvin, with his stern father. The horse needs to broken or it will be sold.

The unlikely bond which grows after well drawn initial mistrust between the two kids and how Mistatim brings them together is the heart of the play. It is a learning play but without any heavy wagging of theatrical fingers at its pre-teen audience. Calvin’s initial harshness reflecting what is imposed by his father gives way to Speck’s ability to identify with Mistatim’s life as another creature to love. Speck, initially dismissive and touchy towards Calvin, and Calvin, desperately needing his father’s approval while resenting it, both learn that bending a little is important in life. His father bends as well. This is not dramatically rendered, so to speak, but is one of the standard tropes of TYA—the adult understands in the end. What makes the play work is the cool, almost mysterious approach Shields takes. Mistatim himself seems in some ways a dream for the two children. Their playing together at the end—Mistatim is saved—shows enough earned hope, even a rising joy. Life usually doesn’t end this way but one gives in to the play as adults do in a fairy tale.

Instant is another case. In lesser hands the cliches of teen-age angst in the contemporary instant media age would abound—they are certainly there—but the shaping of the material and its theatrical vitality is what carries the play. However, the play really doesn’t deserve, more to the point, hasn’t earned, the happy ending imposed on it. We accept the ‘Hollywood ending’ but with a mixed emotion.

Meredith and Jay are high school friends, he longing to make it to the NHL, she wanting internet fame via YouTube where she posts covers of current hit songs, yet is reluctant to present her own. Both are ambitious for each other. Enter Rosie. She is attempting to raise money online for her father who suffers from MS. She sings also. When she goes viral, Meredith, already uncertain of herself, becomes jealous and creates a nasty social media campaign against Rosie. At her lowest Rosie, battered by the campaign, attempts suicide marking the time to the deed online. Meredith, knowing she has gone too far, enlists Jay to save Rosie. They do. That’s where the problem lies. Until then the play is a model of keen characterization supported by dynamic construction as the drama moves to the climax of attempting to save Rosie. When that happens the beauty of the tension in the play deflates. Sometimes there aren’t happy endings. More, the play doesn’t just offer preventing the suicide. It goes on a bit with the three describing how wonderful life became after saving Rosie. Meredith—a hit posting her own songs; Jay—on his way to the NHL; Rosie—a new awakening and happier life with enough money raised for her father and she on student council.

All to the good but the striking play we have up to then is about something else. The parents who attend a production of Instant will be satisfied, probably the teens as well, but something starker is lurking. That too could offer some kind of hope but we don’t get to see it argued.

However, without doubt these are important plays compromises not withstanding. They should be on every TYA company’s production list.

Mistatim(concept by Sandra Laronde) and Instant
By Erin Shields
Playwrights’ Canada Press, 2018, 113 pages, $18.98
ISBN 978-1-77091-929-7

Rory Runnells is a Winnipeg writer.  He was Executive Director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights for 34 years. He reviews for the  Winnipeg Free Press.

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