Festen – The Company Theatre

By Megan Mooney


So, I posted a review of Festen at blogTO, I’m going to repost it here, but then, afterwards I’m going to write more, geek out theatre-wise as it were.

Original review:

When I went to The Company Theatre’s production of Festen it was one of those rare opportunities for me to go to a show completely blind. I didn’t know what it was about, so I didn’t know what to expect. All I had heard about the show (even though I purposely tried not to read anything about it, there are things that always slip through) was that it was “intense”. And yes, yes it was. Intense is a good word for it. It was also great.

My show-partner for this one was Kate, who is ‘in the business’ as they say. This is a show that you can enjoy without knowing a scrap of theatre theory, but it’s also kind of a theatre-geek’s wet dream. So, going to it with someone who is in the industry made for some pretty fun conversation afterward. But don’t worry, I’ll stay away from the theatre-geek stuff as much as possible while I write about it here.

We both really enjoyed the show. I told her I was blown away, she said parts blew her away, but other parts didn’t work for her. I think it’s safe to say that she was still impressed, just not quite as impressed as me. Either way, this is a show that has a big impact.

Walking into the space, my first impression was “wow”. In fact, I said it out loud.

I wasn’t expecting the vast expanse of the stage. The traditional ‘walls’ of the stage were stripped away and the stage extended right back to the brick. Also intriguing, the stage was filled with stand-alone lights instead of the traditional ‘lights in the ceiling’. They lit main spaces – a dining room, a bedroom and a bathroom. These are only identifiable as specific spaces though the furniture; there are no indicators of separation, increasing the open feeling.

Kate pointed out that the beginning kind of dragged, that it felt kind of like the actors hadn’t quite decided on what that night’s performance would be. I wouldn’t have noticed it that specifically, but when she put it that way I immediately understood. For me it just felt like there wasn’t a dynamic beginning. There were also some pacing issues throughout the piece, but as the show went on there was a palpable change as the actors found their characters and went to town.

I don’t want to go into the plot, because I actually think this is a show that’s better if you go in a bit blind, but I do think I should warn you, this is not an ‘easy’ show. It’s intense.

Rest assured, although there are emotionally horrific moments, they are balanced out with some of the funniest moments I’ve seen on stage in a very long time. I actually was laughing so hard it hurt (even though sometimes I felt guilty since sometimes it came in tandem with some heart-wrenching words).

This is a show that doesn’t pull punches. There’s a lot of violence, some implied, some that happens off stage, and some that happens right before your eyes. Tough topics aren’t shied away from. Emotions lay obviously on the surface, but aren’t acknowledged, so they never go away. Like I said, this isn’t an easy play.

If you get a chance to, I would recommend checking this one out. If nothing else, it’s dark, but funny. It’s different than a lot of what you see on stage.

– Festen plays at the Berkley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley St) until Dec 13, 2008
– Shows run Monday – Saturday at 8pm, with a matinee on Saturday at 2pm
– Ticket prices range from $20 to $40 and can be purchased in person at the Berkeley Street Theatre, or the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, or by calling 416.368.3110 or online


And now the stuff I wanted to write, but that is really just a bit too geeky for blogTO…

I told you this show was a theatre-geek’s wet dream, but I didn’t tell you why.  The biggest thing is the juxtaposition of a Brechtian approach while still working with some strong verisimilitude.  (The quick version of the non-geek speak of that would be the way it is both really realistic, and constantly reminding you this isn’t real at the same time).

That combo, along with a few other things, are what break conventions in this show.  For example:

– There is no delineation when the play starts, or when it ends.  There is no dimming of the house lights, which is the most common cue to audiences that the show is about to start.   There is also no house music that stops, or stage lights that come up.  Everything is set up as it will be by the time the audience is let in.  It ends in pretty much the exact way, leaving the impression that this play is only a part of a whole, that there’s stuff that happened before, and stuff that will happen subsequently, and that for whatever reason we were only shown this particular bit.

– Except for the off stage kitchen, there is no real ‘backstage’.  When actors are not part of the main action they are somewhere within visible range, on the chairs against the wall on stage, up in the cat walks, huddled in a corner, things like that.  That, along with things like the lighting directly on stage – those are the Brechtian-type things.

– On the other side of the coin, when dishes are collected from the table you can hear them rattling away in the kitchen.  You can smell food while it’s being prepared.  The actors actually eat real food on stage.  These are some of the verisimilitude things I was talking about.

– One thing that I was fascinated by, and sometimes liked, sometimes didn’t, is that the spaces and scenes were not delineated at all.  Actors play across each other, two conversations happening across each other as though the other actors weren’t there.  In terms of shared spaces, there is one scene where one physical space represents 3 simultaneously – there are three scenes going on, in three different bedrooms, and three characters sit on the bed in their bedroom – three actors are sitting on one bed, but three characters are each sitting on their own bed.  It was a great moment for me.

Things like that added a fascinating texture to the show for me, but weren’t so different that someone would need to struggle and amend their current understanding of theatre to keep up with.  And, they left me thinking things like ‘I would never have thought to do something like that’, which is actually a pretty rare thought for me.  Not to say that I could actually pull together a show, but just that there’s not a ton of stuff I see that surprises me.

This is the kind of show that will be different every night.  I realise this is true of any performance, but especially so with this one.  The actors are given a leeway that means that some AMAZING moments are possible, but so are some  drawn out ones.  The leeway makes the pacing a bit uneven, but I liked that the production took that risk, I liked that I could see the intense moments, and was willing to sit through the draggy ones.

The thing that disturbed me most about the show had nothing to do with the show.  It was the man sitting two seats over from me actually emailing people on his blackberry.  I kind of wanted to stand up and swat the back of his head, but I figured that would be even more disruptive.  Why?  Why do people do shit like that?  That’s not even acceptable in a movie theatre, it’s REALLY not acceptable when the performers are live in front of you.

But I digress.  Bottom line is go see this play.  Even if it isn’t to your taste, it will be interesting at the very least.


Photo of Eric Peterson and Philip Riccio by Guntar Kravis.