Review: Liminal Spaces, A Digital Play Trilogy (Alma Matters Productions/Nowadays Theatre/MXL Live Loft)
If most of this review’s readers are anywhere, it’s a safe bet to say that they are between who they were around March 2020 and who they will become as they find their way back into the post-pandemic world. There is transition in the air, a sense of unresolved inbetweenness, with all the internal rejiggering and hard decision-making that entails.
It’s this struggle of holding on to who you are in a moment of uncertainty, when past principles seem to lack any clear direction, that the Liminal Spaces trilogy taps into. Brought to us by Alma Matters, Nowadays and MXL Live Loft, these one-act plays, filmed National-Theatre-archives-style, approach the grey area between the black and the white with a refreshing lack of definite answers. Rather than being prescriptive, promising to help to figure life out, come what may, the plays seek to thrive in spaces where the path forward isn’t paved but created by the first step you decide to take.
A piano prodigy, played by Sarah Marchand, dines alongside a famous musical director, played by Anand Rajaram, who wields his power to prey on those whose ambitions he could make a reality.
Rajaram imbues his role with subtlety and finesse, giving off tons of slimy tension, as one might expect from such a figure, but cut with a sense of weakness and insecurity that explains but never justifies his behavior. It’s the kind of performance that stays true to the trilogy’s title, in the sense that we aren’t given the option to dismiss the character outright. Rather, we are asked to consider the human beneath the monster, reminding me of the open-mindedness people like Daryl Davis have made a career out of.
Marchand, for her part, brings an awareness to her character, Jane, such that victimhood could only ever come second to her life’s goals as composer and performer. Jane’s reactions to the maestro crossing line after line are both arresting and dignified – including a private scream that releases her and the audience’s tension at just the right time – but she is not above taking advantage of how she’s being taken advantage of, calling the maestro out in the hopes of landing a career-defining role. She navigates broadly accepted social rights and wrongs to her own ends and thus remains herself throughout.
Hats off to director Jonathan Shaboo and writers Jax Smith and Helene Taylor for weaving and realizing such a complex and timely world delivered through the (at least on the surface) quietest of conversations.
A woman doesn’t feel well, thinks she might be dead, or at least dying, and wishes to speak to her son to feel better. Next to her, her deceased mother tries to comfort her and remind her that she must do all she can to convince herself she’s alive.
The ailing woman, played by Aida Keykhaii, teeters between existence and non-existence, wrecked by the fear of not being able to conclusively pin down which is which. Is it the imagination that keeps us here, engaged with the days? Otherwise, without the right story unfolding along with those days, how can we really know for sure?
Keykhaii’s unease toward these questions, a product of reality as she battles cancer, are enough to make anyone understand that latching onto what you value is what keeps you steady through the cyclicality of life. And when I say latching, I mean being unapologetically selfish with what you have been lucky enough to love. I mean acting in such a way that you can look back on your time and be proud of what you overcame in the name of that love.
Keykhaii’s tearful flailing for solid boundaries, for certainties to rest within, is a roadmap to not only survival, but to self-emergence, once you realize that those boundaries will change for reasons beyond your control, but there will always be more to discover and erect, in this life and the next.
Writer and director Mohammad Yaghoubi, who is also Keykhaii’s husband, chose to leave it all on the stage with this one, allowing me to find peace with how the world I know now, my personal universe, will not be the one I inhabit in the future, in spite of the vivacity of the impressions I hold dear.
Nathan, a playwright, played by Nathan Taylor, struggles to make headway on his next piece after a scathing review, by Kelly Nestruck, no less, a detail dropped in so unexpectedly it had me howling with laughter. He is as blocked as they come, unsure how to work around the assumptions – literary, sexual, emotional – holding him back.
It’s a love story he’s keen on crafting as the dilemma grows clearer: Does he revisit the traditional boy-meets-girl trope his audience craves, or does he allow equality and the frustration and anxiety of how a love is made up as you go to muddle his ultimate offering?
I found the structure by which this conflict is laid out to be both ingenious and thoroughly entertaining. On the one end, we have Nathan (the character), and on the other we have Manic Pixie Dream Girl, played by Annick Sheedy McLellan, an envoy from the Narrative Gods sent to curb Nathan’s vision toward the happily ever after, whether he likes it or not.
The pair switch back and forth, between characters and characters embodying Nathan’s characters, with an immediacy and command of their craft that is only amplified by Raf Finn’s musical adrenaline and directors Taras Lavren and Justin Otto’s contrasts of space and colour.
Taylor and McLellan play off each other like fall and the smell of rain. It’s a gift to behold their dynamism, confidence and absolute comfort with their respective artistic choices. This is why, of the three works, it stands out as the most singular. It is suffused with a sense of play, takes the most chances and has the most to lose and to gain.
MPDG presents the question of how to exercise authority over one’s story as a negotiation between who you are and how you are seen, between what you feel to be true and what hearsay dictates you to expect. It asks of us to take a stance somewhere along the plane of this give-and-take, remembering that any claims of immutable fact are in fact mobile by necessity, change being the only constant.
This is why ending the play with a summation of what we’ve just witnessed makes perfect sense. It underlines the work’s conscious support of Nathan the character’s muddled but realistic romantic vision in a world that prefers the comforts of fantasy, though perhaps it could have been pulled off in a less moralizing, clinical, academic way. That said, the work remains the kind of fun worth paying to have.
Here’s to more collaborations like this one, where artists bet on their processes’ ability to translate the history of their time into a deep desire to be human.
Catch the show until October 15 through here. Twenty per cent of all ticket sales will be donated to the CDA Institute Afghan Refugee Program.