Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Montrealer David Paquet wrote the original comedy, Le Brasier, which debuted in 2012, and now Upstream Artistic Director Philip Boehm directs this new English translation by Leanna Brodie. It's one of those deliciously bizarre shows where you aren't sure you want to be the first one to laugh. Try to imagine you're French-Canadian, maybe that helps. But eventually everyone's laughing when actress Jane Paradise, in a ghastly comic moment, realizes she's been doting over a toy baby doll that's not real at all. The anguished laughs unexpectedly continue as she hurls the thrift-store doll to the floor. It's hard to explain why: maybe not everyone's cut out to be a parent. Or, maybe every parent feels that way from time to time. The whole play's giggling subtitle could be "Oh, God, no!"
When you put the 75-minute comedy's actual Québécois subtitle into an online translator, it comes out as "a play on the neuroses which flow from generation to generation," which seems accurate. But stylistically, it's gnarly and self-expressive in its awkward, unapologetic madness. It's as if you gave truth serum to the crazy shut-in(s) down the block, before the modern age of anti-psychotic drugs. This is what you'd get: everyone thinks they're the only sane one in the bunch, even as they sink further into a seductive madness. Well okay, that's everyone on my block.
In another scene, Ms. Paradise and Tom Wethington play two deeply insecure people (her cat has died after 17 years, and its ghost haunts her; he just sits at home and plays cards online all day) till they meet and begin dating. The crash-and-burn comedy of their scene, "The Dragons," comes from each one's intense social awkwardness. This is heightened by the movie titles in the local cineplex, which suggest the movies will always be too simpleminded and mass-marketed to speak to anyone's real needs or desires: SOS: Tarantula! is one; and on another date night they go see Flowers in Springtime, the bittersweet story of a dying woman who plants vegetables for her children who must live on without her. Woofie is another movie-night extravaganza, which probably requires no explanation. Nevertheless, the prefabricated films become fodder for their own discussions at a cafe later, where they become uniquely inseparable. We are not here, so much, to understand ourselves, but perhaps to understand how we fit into the deeply flawed world around us as best we can. In that sense, hilarious and original Wildfire is a sort of "get out of jail free" card for the weirdness in each of us.
There's a third act, or scene, "The Fever," with actress Nancy Bell, who was one of the triplets in the first scene ("The Bonfire"). Back then, she baked awful cookies and lied to her therapist a lot. Now, an hour later, she's a different woman, in a long grey sweater, and her libido seems never to have awakened, till one day when she's at home vacuuming and sees a man on TV who completely inflames her sexual desire. And then another man, equally magnetic. Unfortunately, both of those men turn out to be infamous serial killers. And she seeks one out for a wild night and, well, you might not want to bring the kids, though there were two strangely silent teenagers in the audience the night I went.
But it's just as funny and crazy and strangely enjoyable as the first two acts. Almost exactly a year ago, Ms. Bell played the 40-ish mom who went beautifully insane every night, near the end of The Wolves (a play about a team of young soccer players, on the brink of womanhood) at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. She's aces here too, in the tumultuous psychological space between normal and not, appearing in the first and third acts.
What I've learned, in this busy three-show weekend, is that great people can take a very good show and make it nearly great. But sometimes you have to go outside your own country, preoccupied with its familiar storylines and its delicious "pure entertainments" to get at true greatness, and a fascinating, maddening truth about all mankind. Sometimes you have to go to Canada: for the drugs to make you sane all over again.
Upstream Theater's Wildfire runs through February 9, 2020, at The Marcelle, 3310 Samuel Shephard Drive (a few blocks behind Powell Symphony Hall), St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.upstreamtheater.org.
Part 1: The Bonfire
Part 2: The Dragons:
Part 3: The Fever
* Member, Actors Equity Association
** Member, United Scenic Artists Local 829
*** Actors Equity Association Membership Candidate