Review: Sweat (Canadian Stage and Studio 180 Theatre)

Photo of Ordena Stephens-Thompson, Ron Lea, Kelli Fox - three people toasting in front of a bar sitting on bar stoolsSweat may not be perfect, but it’s important and worth seeing

I wasn’t exactly sure why, but I knew walking out of Sweat, playing at Canadian Stage‘s Berkeley Theatre, that it was going to be a hard piece to write about. In fact, I already knew it at intermission.

It’s a solid production. It was a lovely way to spend an evening, but I was having a hell of a time getting this review written. After having written bits and pieces of this it over the past couple of days, but never managing anything cohesive, the reason finally struck me as I ambled down my stairs: I wanted to like this piece more than I did.

Everything about this production was fine. It was all good. Good directing, good acting, good design, all of it good. But none of it took my breath away. And I could tell it had the potential to.

Lynn Nottage is one of those playwrights that whenever I hear her name, my ears perk right up. Nottage has a way of capturing a character that I really love. Interestingly, I find her works tend to be very different from each other. It means I walk in never really knowing what to expect but being confident that whatever it is, it will be well crafted. Sweat was no different. The production may not have taken my breath away, but the script did. I loved it.

Sweat is a culmination of many years of work, and a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to write a play about “an American Revolution.” Nottage was inspired by the financial plight of a friend and attending Occupy Wall Street protests to dig deeper into the American De-Industrial Revolution. She spent two-and-a-half years interviewing people in Reading, Pennsylvania. Reading is a post-industrial town that had gone from an industrial powerhouse to the poorest city in the country in 2011. With the intimate knowledge that she gained from the in-depth personal research she conducted, Nottage crafted a play that puts an incredibly human face on how we ended up where we are today.

Walking into the theatre, we’re greeted with what would now be called a ‘dive bar’ but in 2000 would probably have just been called ‘a bar,’ especially in an industrial town like Reading. There’s wood everywhere, but not in the rich mahogany way you might imagine in the bars the owners of the factories may have frequented. The wood here may still lend a warmth to the space but in a down-home practical way. Corkboards of notices are behind the bar, and the single tap of beer – a running joke throughout the piece – add to the feeling of a ‘practical’ drinking hole.

Ken Mackenzie has done really well in crafting this set. It evokes exactly the right feeling, time and place for me, and it provides a kind of anchor for the piece. Most of the action happens in this bar, but even when the action is happening elsewhere, the bar is still there — an omnipresent reminder of the need for something in common to hold these people together.

The piece takes place in 2000 and 2008, and news clips projected above the bar mark the passage of time. I like the concept of this. The idea of highlighting news stories of the time to earmark time passing is a strong one – unfortunately, the execution here doesn’t quite work for me. It ends up being too chaotic.

I found that with so many things happening simultaneously and things being so loud, I couldn’t follow any of them. I wasn’t able to latch onto what any of the stories were. It may have been entirely intentional for it to be jarring, but ultimately it took me out of the experience of the piece, and it took me a bit to get back into following the action each time.

For the most part, Anna Treusch’s costumes feel right on the money. I particularly like the choice to put Chris (Christopher Allen) in a looks-fine-but-doesn’t-quite-fit-exactly-right suit after he is released from prison. Not only does it feel like exactly what Chris would wear, but it also feels like a pretty apt allegory for what he’s going through at the time. The only thing that I had a challenge with was the wig that Timothy Dowler-Coltman was wearing as the younger version of Jason. Unfortunately, it felt so wiggish that it was distracting. When combined with the rather frenetic style of energy Dowler-Coltman has in this piece, I kept worrying it would fly off.

David Storch’s direction has brought out some great moments from these actors, and there is undeniable chemistry on stage. Some of my favourites were watching Oscar (Jhonatta Ardila) watching the others. I appreciated how Ardila inhabited Oscar, who is on stage a lot but doesn’t say a lot. I felt a quiet discomfort from him, as though he was just trying to do his job and not rock the boat. It’s always a treat when a character conveys that level of communication quietly from the back corner of a stage, without upstaging anyone.

There were great performances all around, but Kelli Fox playing Tracey and Ordena Stephens Thompson playing Cynthia particularly captured my heart. The language of this script is natural and flowing. It’s conversational and real. These two actors have really captured that. They aren’t reciting lines; they’re having conversations right now, fighting right now.

As I said at the beginning, the production didn’t blow me away. Unfortunately, there was a frenetic energy that ran through the piece that kept pulling me out of it. I mentioned the projected news stories between acts pulling me out of the piece – in one case, so loud I couldn’t hear the dialogue happening on stage. But it was also present in a few of the characters.

So, even during the meat of the play, the frenetic energy from a few characters made things hard to follow at times. I would have like to have seen this reigned in. It is possible to convey a sense of franticness, of feeling lost and overwhelmed, and even out of control, without it spilling out all over the stage. I would have liked to have seen that. As it was, some things felt, for lack of a better description, a bit too all over the place.

All of that said, I still recommend it. For one thing, this was opening night, and while those projections aren’t going to be changing, the accompanying volume may. Also, the frenetic energy in the characters may yet be reigned in. But more important than that, it’s already a good solid piece of theatre, and it’s a fantastic script.

It gives a tangible picture of the fallout of the crumbling of the industrial economy of the States. It shows how people quickly turned to blame, but instead of the systems – political and business-related – that were the real culprits, they blamed the people around them, the ones who were more accessible to them. How this fanned the flames of racism and anti-immigration sentiments. And, ultimately, how Donald Trump is now the President of the United States.

Details

  • Sweat is playing until February 2, 2020 at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley St)
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8 pm (Fridays at 7 pm), with 2 pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Matinees also run Wednesdays at 1 pm.
  • Ticket prices range from $49 to $79 and are available online, by phone at 416-368-3110 or in person at the Berkeley Street Theatre Box Office.

Photo of Ordena Stephens-Thompson, Ron Lea, Kelli Fox by John Lauener