Alkestis: a must-see this weekend

What: The UC Drama Program Director’s shows
Where: UC Helen Gardner Playhouse
When: Tonight at 9PM, Tomorrow (Sunday) at 4PM
Tickets: or at the door (come early, it will be a full house), FREE

Lauren Gillis’s masterful directorial debut, Alkestis, an adaptation of Euripedes’s play, is at once hilarious, clever, very well acted, and an extremely cohesive piece of work: it’s one of the best directed plays I’ve seen in years, made even more amazing by its novice director. Alkestis is a strange combination of tragedy, comedy, and satire, and Gillis’s production hits each of these notes marvelously and perfectly. The cast is remarkably good and pulls off these myriad moods, perfectly switching seamlessly between them in an instant.

Alkestis is the strange story of how Alkestis, the wife of King Admetus, agrees to take his place in Hades so that he can still live, and how Admetus copes with the loss of his wife; somewhere in there Heracles shows up on his mission which provides an immense amount of comedy. But this is really just the McGuffin for a marvelous play that follows which, especially in Gillis’s production, satirizes the Greek tragedy. Her actors speak their lines with such conviction but everything is just slightly over the top, as in a melodrama, that tragic scenes become hilarious: it’s deadpan humour at its best.  There’s just enough seriousness to allow us to suspend our disbelief and the characters undercut the seriousness just enough to allow a general absurdist attitude. When Heracles shows up at the mourning Admetus’s door, Admetus does a complete 180, wears gaiety and only mild grief so that he can show Heracles hospitality. When Heracles leaves the stage, Admetus returns immediately to loud moaning with sorrow. When Heracles returns a few seconds later to collect his forgotten weapon, Admetus returns to cheeriness in an instant: it’s so perfectly timed that it’s hilarious without being crude.

Gillis’s production is very modern but not modernized: it doesn’t have the feel of a period piece but the original work isn’t corrupted either. Heracles plays like a laid back college kid on a mission – he even drinks wine out of red plastic cups to celebrate – and yet somehow he fits perfectly in the play that’s set hundreds of years ago. Admetus’s children show up in the form of a couple of puppets, voiced by the amazing Maarika Pinkney. When Alkestis dies, her son squeals and believably cries out in pain, yet the fact that he is a puppet undercuts this and amazingly makes it all quite hilarious without being distasteful: it is just so well acted and sincere. Gillis adds in these modern touches with just enough subtlety that they seem to fit into the world of these characters and the story. I’m used to seeing plays at Stratford where Shakespeare is artificially transported into the 1960s; Gillis uses no such artifice. Her modifications are carefully chosen and are done so cleverly.

The production is so smooth that you might not notice the many ways in which it truly excels because it all comes together seamlessly. The staging is phenomenal: the director uses a minimalist set with very few props, yet the stage never looks empty or seems artificially overused. The actors are perfectly placed and the lighting helps fill the gaps. There’s a great deal of energy so even when only a small part of the stage is used it works and the action is never too focussed dead centre or on the side. And so the blocking is never distracting, keeping you constantly engaged in the acting. There are no overly artsy scenes or transitions as is so often the misstep of directorial debuts (have you seen George Clooney’s trainwreck, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind?); Alkestis plays like the work of a confident and talented master. The costumes, props, and sets – all set in white, black, and red – provide a cohesive aesthetic for the production which keeps us fully immersed in this world where nothing in it seems out of place.

Special mention should also be made of the many parts played by Maarika Pinkney who is equally convincing as a young housemaid, an old hunchbacked woman, and a squealing grieving child through carefully perfected vocal work and physical embodiment. Her scenes are an absolute joy to watch.

I’ve been going to some of the UC Drama Program’s director’s shows for several years now, and Gillis’s production of Alkestis is by far the best one I’ve seen: it’s fresh without seeming experimental. Better yet, it’s a play so well put together – from production to directing to acting – that it never feels like student theatre: it’s much more competent than most recent professional productions I have seen, including those at Stratford.

Director Lauren Gillis is a talent to watch for who has already found a unique and cohesive style with her first play and I just can’t wait to see what she’ll do next.

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