The Toronto Theatre Review: Factory Theatre’s The Waltz
The wooden deck structure juts out at us almost aggressively, but there is a warmth to the setting that feels like nature with a sprinkle of welcoming. There are bottles, or maybe jars are the best way to describe them, filled with blue water and some very specific items placed around the central platform. It’s unclear what they represent (even when the play is over after a quick 70 minutes) but the whole image sets a tone that is convincing and inviting as Factory Theatre‘s fantastically charming new play, The Waltz, gets underway. There is a woman hanging out on stage since we walked into the theatre, reading and reclining. But her tranquility is upended when the theatre lights begin to dim with the noise and clammer of a car door slamming somewhere behind us. Out of nowhere, down the aisle, a young man comes, carrying far too many items in his overworked hands. His arrival breaks that sweet stillness, opening up the dance floor with his energy and his presence.
It’s a hilariously warm beginning as The Waltz shines bright under that Saskatchewan sky. The play carries weight, like that young man, as it is part of a larger cycle of plays by Badian that began in 2013 with the writing of the play, Prairie Nurse. Performed at The Station Arts Center, Rosthern, SK, a town which it turns out is just two short hours away from Arborfield, SK where Badian’s actual mother spent her first two years in Canada, and the setting of this earlier play. Prairie Nurse is basically a prequel to The Waltz, unpacking an immigrant story centered around two women from the Philippines trying their best to create a new life in small-town Saskatchewan as nurses in the 1960s. Those two women and their story hang on the edges of this new play, drawing some sweet parental lines of connection to the two central characters of The Waltz. Its energy is palpable, enhancing the dynamics without ever getting too much in the way of this stand-alone play’s original dance steps.
The Waltz does have some pretty strong and enjoyable side steps, in 3/4 time meter, that boldly try to connect these two characters to the two from that earlier play. Their lineage is revealed casually, as it is compelling but not necessarily required reading to understand and enjoy this stellar production at the Factory Theatre, directed with heart and soul by Nina Lee Aquino (Factory Theatre’s acts of faith). The Waltz jumps the action forward simply and with ease to the 1990s when boom boxes are as heavy and large as the multi-paged CD case that one had to lug around with it. Those artifacts, along with that clumsy fold-out map, bring great fun to this charming little dance of a play, leading us in expertly into the standoff, and to our complete enjoyment of it all.
The two characters play well together, starting off strong and smart with a standoff that immediately pulls us in. It’s a clash between urban and rural, and as with any waltz, the dance always begins with the pair coming together and acknowledging the other. But here in The Waltz, the coming together starts with a more aggressive bow in the form of a crossbow held by a woman, Bea Klassen, engagingly portrayed with fire by Ericka Leobrera (Tarragon’s Margaret Reid), standing strong and in control, and from the other, a curtsey, as the man, Romeo Alvarez, boldly portrayed by Anthony Perpuse (Tarragon’s Theory), crunches his body down to his knees in a defensive position alarmed and worried about his personal safety. It’s not exactly the most traditional beginning of a waltz, but in this delicious charmer of a play by playwright Marie Beath Badian (Mind Over Matter), the opening stance is pretty darn perfect and engaging.
The two strangers face off on that platform, intricately designed by costume designer Jackie Chau (Factory’s Lady Sunrise), with warm lighting by Michelle Ramsay (Factory’s Year of the Rat) and a solid sound design by Lyon Smith (Obsidian’s Venus’ Daughter). They begin their weighted “one-two-three step” dance without missing a beat. He has arrived somewhat unannounced at a house deep in Saskatchewan hoping to meet with an old friend of his mother’s. He’s tired from the long drive, but ultimately hopeful, trying dutifully to fulfill his mother’s wishes with that kind and caring ambivalence of a good son doing his mother proud. He is at the halfway point, driving out west to start school at UBC, a school chosen because it is the furthest away from his home in Scarborough. This valedictorian has taken a winding and very beautiful road out of his way to this house, and maybe to the rest of his life, unknowingly to reconnect the dots to a past he knows very little about. The Doctor he is meant to meet isn’t there. He’s off fishing, but this young woman, Bea, is, and her hospitality isn’t what he was expecting. It takes a number of counter-clockwise turns around that dancefloor before her protective walls eventually come down. There are some faint lines that link the two back over the years to those two Filipino Prairie Nurses. But those lines are not as important to this tale as the energy and engagement these two actors need to bring to the two souls hanging out together on a deck in the middle of nowhere Saskatchewan. And that energy is good, well-played, engaging, and thoroughly convincing.
Their chemistry is clear and flirtatious, even when standing in a protective or defensive stance to one another. It’s not overtly sexual, this entanglement, but it does carry an energy that is quite charming and effective. Her guard eventually does come down, one could say a little too abruptly, but overall the shift feels right and true in the bigger scheme of things. They connect and engage as if they were dancing the tango that they were always meant to, forming some sort of bond that feels like destiny. The hesitated rhythm of the weighted step of a waltz plays out beautifully, thanks to choreographer Andrea Mapili (Fringe’s Through the Bamboo), surprising us all with its playfulness. There is a clear adept feel for the conflictual energy that lives and breathes inside a romantic comedy like the one we are witnessing as we joyfully watch these two second-generation Filipinos connect under the warm Saskatchewan sky.
They pull and poke at one another with a feisty engaging spark over a few beers, unpacking racial undertones in their different upbringings that could have used a bit more focus and exploration. Her high school story is so compelling and I must admit I wanted to know more, especially in comparison to Romeo’s privileged upbringing in Scarborough surrounded by other Filipino teenagers. He was not the odd one sitting outside like she was. But that curiosity didn’t seem to get in the way of the pleasure that swings and lifts them and this play up into a sweet rom-com realm that I wasn’t expecting. The Waltz feels like an older play. Well crafted and tested. A solid, structural sound play that has been around for years, even though this is the play’s World Premiere. And that’s high praise for a new play to feel so grounded and cleverly pulled together.
As we wait with bated breath for the play to connect to its title, the sound of that music is surprisingly sweet and utterly charming from beginning to end. It’s the dance finale we didn’t know we were all waiting for as The Waltz leaves us thoroughly engaged and wondering about where the next story will take us. Just like all the best rom-com tales that we hold close to our hearts. The play stays clear of being overly sentimental, and even though I could have used a bit more weight from their second-generation immigrant story, when we finally get to that tentative curtsey from Bea, we happily concede, knowing that Romeo may have found his match and we have found our joy. The Ontario Rosaline is forgotten (at least for this dance), and a whipsmart Saskatchewan Juliet has stepped in and embraced the moment being offered. Let’s just hope that playwright Badian’s next chapter of this compelling immigrant tale doesn’t have a similarly tragic ending for Romeo and Bea, as it did with the fair Juliet, as this Waltz is the happy sweet ending we have always hoped for.