Arms Length - you are what you eat

Arm's Length, trying to get some control

The hardest thing to write is happiness. It represents stasis and in theatre – where movement is so important – it can spell trouble.

With Arm's Length, Echoplay Theatre take on what I consider the holy grail of theatre writing, open a play with a happy, contented couple and somehow make them or their situation engaging. That’s why I never write plays about happy people. Or, if they are happy, there has to be some deep flaw – hopefully sexual – that will grab the audience. Of course, that may just fall under the category of “write about what you know”.

Arm's Length is about a dissolving relationship. Kate (Mikela Dyke) gets a job offer somewhere far away and leaves behind Matt (Mark Purvis) for a year. They talk on the phone about how much they desire one another. Maybe I’m getting old but this doesn’t seem so bad. She’s off having experiences that will make her a more profound person. For his part, Matt could be doing something with his life, instead of throwing up when Kate doesn’t contact him for several days.

That’s not completely true. He does do something, he moves the furniture. And when Kate returns, she throws a fit.

So, Arm's Length is about control. There is a third character, Olivia (Dawn Nearing), who takes Kate’s place in the apartment. Olivia too has control issues. When Olivia is first introduced I thought we were about to enter Single White Female territory. My curiosity was raised, were Olivia and Matt going to have some crazy sex encounter? Alas, no. Olivia moves some stuff and pisses off Matt. She also brings home a lobster.

Her interactions with the other two are so incidental that it’s almost as if Olivia is living in her own one-person show. Her well realized monologues, however, do lift the piece, supported by Nearing’s strong performance. Nearing’s apologetic way of moving around the space in her pink crocs, her small but well detailed eccentricities all rang true to me. It was refreshing to see a character so familiar but rarely seen on stage. Dyke and Purvis fare less well but then they are given a much tougher challenge in articulating journeys that are simply not that compelling.

To spice things up, director Laurel Green and art director Serena Lee, make use of different visual elements. A fourth performer pulls an overhead projector around on the floor and creates low tech animations that are projected against the performers and a giant white sheet (for some reason, this sheet is flanked by an enormous pair of white trousers and a nightdress). The set is made up of boxes which are moved around during the performance (some of them are actually in the seats at the top of the show). There is also some movement work and direct to audience addresses that offset the naturalistic core of the piece.

It was interesting to watch Arm's Length with Vancouver theatre-sensibilities still fresh in my mind. The intersection of projections, movement work and performance is something that has become a defining feature of a lot of work produced in that city. I suspect a young Vancouver company would have focussed less on naturalism and instead emphasized the physical work and the visual elements to support the exploration of some abstract ideas.

One very strong idea in Arm's Length is how the body works, particularly the process of digestion. This idea does link to notions of control and love (consuming your lover). Kate delivers a nice talk about digestion but unless I missed it, she completely leaves out the major by-product of digestion: shit. And that seems an oversight in a piece about control-freaks. It also would have provided a nice balance to the smiling, happy couple we see at the top. Sure, you can consume your lover but you’re still left with having to deal with the often unpleasant end product of what you just ate.

Arm's Length by Laurel Green and Serena Lee with Robert LaRonde,Directed by Laurel Green,Presented by echoplay theatre, Featuring Mikaela Dyke, Dawn Nearing, Mark Purvis.Part of the 2008 SummerWorks Festival, for showtimes and information go here.


By Andrew Templeton