By Leah Mercer
Having seen two productions directed by Margi Brown Ash in the past, I was positively bursting with excitement about A Mouthful of Pins, expecting the possibility of being as profoundly moved by it as I was by the others.
Walking into the hazy theatre (smoke machine), I took in a sparsely dressed set (a stumpy bed with a tangle of white linen bordered by some iron fencing hung with white masks); a piano (ooh, live music!); screens (who doesn’t love a bit of multimedia?); and a big construct upstage left, which turned out to be a big Victorian dress that could be climbed in and out of (a lovely piece of design work). The stage was set for something interesting.
And it was interesting. Except that, I am sorry to say, I got completely lost.
Granted, this was a preview performance and, having been stuck in traffic on the way to the show, I was relegated to a seat on the side of the stage (in terms of being able to fully appreciate the projections, this was saddening). But the play just never started making sense to me.
I certainly had not expected this production to be linear or realistic, but neither had I expected to feel puzzled throughout. There is always that initial stage of a performance where you have to concentrate hard to work out how things relate, what’s happening and who’s who. During this performance, I felt as if I never really got past this state, never emerged to a place where I had a grip on the characters and the action and could begin to absorb the play at a different level. Rather, I began to feel panicked that I was missing something that everyone else was getting.
This is not to say that the production is amateurish or unworthy of attention. The performances are strong. Aole T. Miller as a motherly Southern Belle figure is delightful and gives an assured and textured performance. Leah Mercer, as the central character, gives a balanced performance and sings beautifully, and Scotia Monkivitch’s characterâ€”by turns paranoid, comical and cattyâ€”is a galvanising presence. I enjoyed the live music also, which complements and enriches, but never upstages the actionâ€”a violin is the perfect accompaniment to the theme of melancholia.
I don’t think the play’s focus on melancholia, depression and isolation is necessarily its downfall, though at times the angst comes off as laboured and trite. The best moments in the script are moments of lightness, irony, cynicism (“finding the mantra” for instance) but often the text is dense, hard to absorb, cryptic, and ultimately, for me, alienating. I felt as an audience member that, had I been able to cling to less slippery characters and to a more concrete understanding of events preceding the melancholic cycle, I wouldn’t have felt as cut adrift by this production as I did. In short, I needed this play to be kinder to me.
Go and see it, by all means; don’t let me stop you. The team at work here is professional and strong. There is much potential for a fantastic showâ€”the exploration that it sets out upon (through territories of suffering, psychoanalysis, medicine, history, yin and yang) is exciting and enticing. I hope that it gains the strength that I had wished it would wield.
Playing until 16 February 2008: Fri 15, 8pm; Sat 16, 2pm and 8pm