Mir & Andrews’ ‘A Picture With A Bull’ A Mixed Effort

Ruben (Ahad Mir) loves his friends, that he knows for sure. Everything else, well, everything else he just doesn’t know about anymore. Ever since his best friend Nico (Chad Hamilton Andrews) started dating Lisa (Courtney Charnock), Ruben’s life has been a weird mess.

A comedy co-written by Mir and Andrews, A Picture With A Bull asks if adulthood and friendship can ever mix. What audiences will find here is certainly a mix: a lengthy mix of crude humour and cliché under the guise of something meaningful.

The play begins with Ruben taking us back to before all the trouble began, the trouble of girlfriends, responsibility, and nostalgia. Every year, Ruben, Nico, and Greg (Alex Peters) go on a trip together to bond and get away from life. For Ruben, what makes the trip special is that it’s always just him and his bros – no girls allowed. This year, though, Ruben’s friends have a different idea for the trip: what if Lisa and Ruben’s girlfriend Diana (Natasha Strickey) came along too? Ruben outright rejects the idea. He refuses to betray tradition, a tradition only he seems to really care about.

Ruben’s stubbornness eventually leads the guys to question their friendship, career paths, and ultimate end goals; the usual frustrations of twenty-somethings in a 9-5 world.

Mir and Andrews’ play is set up much like a sitcom. In fact, the audience can identify almost right away the usual personalities. Lisa is something like the Phoebe of the group, quirky and artsy. Greg is the Funny Guy/Slacker who is good for a laugh, but not much else (like character development). Ruben is the charismatic Cool Guy, the clever one who has a comeback for everything. And they all work in the professional fields of law, healthcare, and business – except for Lisa who is a dancer, naturally.

Like a sitcom, the writing is (over)stuffed with zingers and risqué jokes. At the same time, too, there are real concerns about adult friendships, about relationships being work rather than things that simply happen. The balance between the two is uneven, to say the least. What unfolds is a messy demonstration of the ensemble’s comedic chops. The play’s more serious commentary exists largely as an afterthought.

When the play exhausts its cheap laughs, the show settles on presenting in full its dramatic side. What follows is a forgettable conclusion – forgettable because the characters never earn anything beyond that – that abruptly ends on a less than hopeful note.

The ensemble’s strength is their charming chemistry which invites the audience into this group of friends, allowing them to laugh along plenty at Mir’s sharp tongued performance and Peters’ wacky antics. The ensemble, however, is allowed to be too much at ease with each other. Brett Tromburg’s relaxed direction takes the punch out of some of the play’s more witty exchanges.

There is no denying that Mir and Andrews have written a funny, if uneven, script. The problem is that not much stands out to make this play particularly memorable. The characters, along with the comedy, are flat, and the drama is undercooked.

Despite having its moments, Mir and Andrews’ A Picture With A Bull is ultimately a mixed effort that offers nothing new that hasn’t been done before.

Ahad Mir and Chad Hamilton Andrews’ A Picture With A Bull ran July 22 – July 25 at the Motel Theatre (Arts Commons) as part of the Common Ground Festival. The full festival runs until Aug 1st.

For more information about the festival, visit: http://www.commongroundyyc.com/

Ryan Gray’s Beneath The Skin Travels a Dark, Compelling Path

How far would you go in search of the truth? How well do we know our limits, our boundaries that keep us from being consumed by a hungry darkness? Ryan Gray explores these questions in Beneath The Skin, a thriller/mystery that boldly ventures into the abyss.

Directed by Jenna Rodgers, Gray’s Beneath The Skin stages reporter Carmin Morgan’s (Justine Westby) exclusive interview with convicted murderer Colton Cassio (Justin Michael Carriere), better known as the Portrait Killer. Colton’s long violent history – a history that started at a young age – fascinates Carmin who will stop at nothing to learn as much as she can about him and his victims. Carmin quickly learns, however, that is just not Colton’s crimes that make him a dangerous man, but also his charisma which threatens to take her down a path she never intended to travel.

The focus of Carmin’s interview is centered around Erin (Claire Bolton), Colton’s first victim whom he fell deeply in love with. Via flashbacks, the audience sees how an awkward 20-year-old Colton (Jacob Lesiuk) eventually came to befriend and then murder Erin while away at university.

Gray skillfully creates tension between Colton and Carmin by rarely letting one person hold power too long between them. While Carmin sees herself locked in a game of wits against Colton, Colton sees the two engaged in a more emotional game, a game of wills. And that is what makes Colton so dangerous, he has nothing to lose; he has given himself over to the darkness that calls him inside. Yet, victory is not so assured, Colton comes to realize, as Carmin’s determination for the truth reveals itself to be something more than a professional obligation.

Colton and Erin’s young love, though sometimes a bit too sweet, is crafted very well by Gray. There is a certain sadness in knowing Erin’s eventual fate, but never dulled anticipation. The interplay between the past and present delivers just enough information to maintain our attention. And then, Gray hits the audience with the inevitable which is both very creative and disturbing. (The audience gasps in horror as the scene becomes obvious).

Where the production fails the script is in its blocking. Noticeably challenged by the limited space available inside the Motel Theatre, the rising tension of the play breaks periodically when Carriere and Westby have to stand and carry the table and their seats to the side in order to make way for a flashback scene, sometimes while fully lit. The whole business seriously throws off the established atmosphere.

Despite the proximity of the audience to the actors (the Motel Theatre has a 50 seat capacity), there is no warning for the audience about the use of live smoke. The sudden inhalation of cigarette smoke distracts from the play’s dramatic conclusion.

Carriere and Westby are truly a force together. Carriere displays an unsettling, yet alluring confidence that make very real the presence of danger, to which Westby responds to with an exhilarating tenacity. Westby is truly firm in her character’s resolve, and that makes her performance all the more exciting to watch.

Bolton and Lesiuk share a pleasant chemistry on stage. Bolton is very easy to like as the cheery, good-natured Claire. Lesiuk plays the young, unassuming Colton with ease. There is a bit of a strain, though, when Lesiuk’s character begins to embrace his more sinister side, but the script is more at fault here than Lesiuk. Lesiuk’s performance during his final scene will have audience members abuzz in the lobby afterwards.

Ryan Gray’s Beneath The Skin is a thrilling piece of work that leaves an impression on any who dare step into the darkness.

Ryan Gray’s Beneath The Skin runs July 22 – July 28 at the Motel Theatre as part of the Common Ground Festival. The full festival runs until Aug 1st.

For more information about the Common Ground Festival, visit: http://www.commongroundyyc.com/