In Boat Load the boat of the title is a metaphor representing the creative muse of Gary Bazman, an underachieving actor who has stayed too long in his small hometown. The load is the passenger list, a lifetime of Gary’s familiars – father, mother, girlfriend, professional contacts, friends, imaginary characters, even his cat, Mr. Tangerine. Gary, the boat, and its load, are all represented by writer/performer Jayson McDonald on a stage that is bare but for a single straight-backed chair. The ensuing hour of actorly tale telling will have your head spinning as you try to keep up with the action and not lose yourself in McDonald’s riveting performances.
As the action begins Gary’s metaphorical boat is heading for a metaphorical iceberg.
He is facing a dead end in a thus-far dead end career path. He sees himself cast in the role of a woodland fairy princess, as part of a lackluster children’s entertainment called “The Enchanted Forest of the Bears”. He is made to skip and lisp and wear fairy wings. Really, he was made for better things. His girlfriend is breaking up with him on account of multiple betrayals. And his only faithful ally, his cat, is critically ill. Enter the opportunity, finally, to get on in life in the form of a high-profile performance showcase. All he needs is $1000 to participate. But wouldn’t you know, that’s exactly how much it will cost for an operation to save Mr. Tangerine’s life? Exactly!
It’s a set-up that’s as admirable in its simplicity as is the form of presentation breathtakingly complex in the hands of performer McDonald and his director, Jeff Culbert. Their story zags and zigs (probably in that order) through a narrative about a narrator telling an autobiographical story that will be used by the narrator in the narrative proper. Follow? And the narrator, an actor, plays all the characters himself in the story, usually deploying a gentle satire that is inadvertently satirizing himself. It’s all fiendishly clever, and that might well be enough, but it’s put across in a performance that’s as perfectly pitched as it is comically adroit. McDonald takes on at least ten roles in the telling. It unfolds at a cracking pace, though the performer has fun speeding up and slowing down the scenes as he pleases. Somehow he discovers time for imaginary flights of fancy, audience interaction, in-coming meta-narrative cell phone calls, and a guided tour of Gary’s small hometown, itself a potted biography and a forlorn note on small town decay.
McDonald’s miming of stage props – doors, drinks, packing-tape – is as physically convincing as is the arch implication that such incidents of actorly illusionism are pedantic and smug. He throws them to us with a moue of disdain and lazily self-generated sound effects (“click”, “snip”). Monologue too, you know, can be tedious and self-important he suggests (witness the impatient speed-up and slow-down of pace), never more obviously when, as contrast, he offers us, for minutes on end, the silent facial responses of one character to another’s unheard speech. Soundlessly we absorb all the information we require of the speaker in this brief, exceptional display. Our impatiences with theatrical convention are his impatiences with theatrical convention. He knows because he has to write the stuff, and deliver the stuff. But, he has a tale to tell, so…
It might all become a snide and brilliant insider joke if McDonald wasn’t so marvelously adept at conjuring feeling and life in the characters, comical and flawed as they are. His characterization of Gary’s depressed and emotionally remote mother, elsewhere dismissed to comic effect as “the Black Cloud”, is genuinely haunting as she dazedly collages feminine hygiene and healthcare packagings to create a portrait. “See, the pill is the head.” His mother recounts a recurring dream where she is treading water in a vast ocean and is visited by a passing cruise ship. Her family, friends, and doctor are all there on board, but not, as she hopes, to rescue her; merely to say hi as they pass by. Gary is not the only one with a metaphorical cruise ship operating in his imagination.
Will Gary somehow make the $1000 he needs from his shoestring existence? Will his showcase audition be accepted if he does? Will he get back with his girlfriend? Will Mr. Tangerine perish, and in so doing, teach Gary a valuable lesson? McDonald will let you know in his own unique way, and at the same time let you know what he thinks of neatly played out conclusions. The final scene sees the action slow to a natural pace, very natural. And after all the comical skewering and witty banter, we are left with an image that could not be more simple and casually heartfelt.
McDonald is a seasoned performer and writer with a string of accolades behind him in his native Canada, where he is well known on the festival circuit. His Boat Load is a mature and complex piece of comical theater, enacted by a performer at the top of his craft. Any one who enjoys comedy or theater will be absorbed and laugh. If you could purchase just one ticket in this year’s Frigid Festival season, you could not do better than this one. Go.
~~~Boat Load Presented by Stars and Hearts London, ON Canada The Red Room (85 East 4th Street) $14 Fri 2/25 @ 6:30pm, Sat 2/26 @ 3:30pm, Mon 2/28 @ 8pm, Fri 3/4 @ 9:30pm, Sat 3/5 @ 11pm, & Sun 3/6 @ 3:30pm