nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
November 1, 2005
In the American premiere of Jigsaw, Canadian playwright/director Jayson McDonald presents an intriguing piece of theater that is 100% plot driven. I love a good story. But I also value crisp dialog, strong character relationships, and above all, clarity. In these areas, Jigsaw falls short.
The play begins when Eric Painter, a priest, arrives at the worn, somewhat disheveled home of Lois Manchen, a skilled archivist. Painter needs her research skills to help unravel the mystery of buried baby bones found at a construction site where his church—and before that, the Rose Hotel—once stood. Initially, she resists, then agrees. Early in the investigation, Lois zeroes in on an old, yellowed paperback sitting on her coffee table. It’s title is "Jigsaw," and it has neither an author nor a publisher. The first 60 pages are missing, but on page 61 is a mention of the Rose Hotel. In a quick reading, Lois discovers that early in the 20th century the Rose Hotel teemed with clandestine activity, mixing luminaries, dignitaries, clergy, prostitutes, and who knows what all. In 1925, the hotel burned to the ground in what was considered arson and the charred remains of a baby were found, but no suspects were identified and the investigation abruptly ended shortly after.
Lois recognizes this as the same mystery that she and Painter are trying to solve 80 years later. To her horror, Lois also discovers that the book anticipates what she and the priest say and do. Even more alarming, she reads that another team, detective Eric Godout and Lauren Villamere, a female journalist, traveled this same course of investigation 40 years earlier—and she is not pleased by the ending. For Lois, a smart archivist, this might seem a mere coincidence. But strange phone calls and paranormal knocks on her door convince her there is more to the story than meets her cerebral eye. It is a rapid descent into purgatory, or in this case, the basement of the Rose Hotel. As I said, this is a captivating story.
But there are distractions. The first is an 11-line poem, which roughly outlines the play in the form of a conundrum. The poem or parts of it appear throughout the play as revelations in solving the mystery. But, the poem doesn’t really help; also somewhat confusing is the character Teresa Villamere, beautifully acted by Hanna Hayes, who periodically steps in to narrate. Teresa interrupts the flow of the story and introduces yet another level of mystery. Concentrating on the clues of the plot, the lines of the poem, and the anguished words of the narrator proved too confusing for me. I chalked it up to an overly enthusiastic playwright with a penchant for riddles.
But there are other distractions. Pervasive use of the telephone is tricky in theater. It excludes the audience and introduces long pauses that flag the pace. Silence can be an effective tool, but not indiscriminately. At one point, McDonald brings the action to a standstill when he directs one character to an offstage kitchen and has the remaining character reading a book. And then there’s the lighting. According to the program, Michael O’Connor has designed more than 200 productions. If that’s the case, what was he thinking when he chose to light the production from backstage, into the eyes of the audience? The audience is spared those lights in Act II, but instead gets three small hanging bulbs that must be 500 watts each. And then there is a glaring handheld search light that again blinds the audience—but, thankfully, only for five minutes or so. As I said, these are distractions.
The same cannot be said for characters who don’t listen to one another. When Painter introduces himself as a priest and requests Lois’s help, she appears angry and peppers her response with curses (as do other characters at seemingly inappropriate spots). Why would she swear at someone she’s just met, and in particular a priest? And, in return, why wouldn’t the priest react to her unusual reply with even a raised eyebrow? This kind of counterintuitive behavior is the biggest problem throughout Jigsaw, and it prevents the characters from establishing relationships and developing them. Manchen and Painter end up working together on this case, but it is difficult to understand how they got there, because the dialog does not allow them to get to know one another, and it is therefore impossible for them to achieve a relationship where the audience feels they are in this together. This makes it difficult for the actors to deliver.
As Lois, Lil Malinich whines when she is afraid, and as the stakes become greater, she becomes strident. Anthony Crep has his finest moment in a scene with Shannon Black, who plays the tormented young Vivienne Villamere. She conveys a sad, soulful figure as the play flashes back and forth through time, with her story unraveling intermittently. Mark Lawrence as Detective Eric Godbout gives an earnest performance and Paola Grande as the journalist Lauren Villamere shows confidence, but they remain emotionally separated.
McDonald places his characters in the loop of Jigsaw’s plot, where they are doomed to repeat themselves generation after generation. Hence the duplication of names: three Villameres, two Erics, and both female leads have first names beginning with “L”. By the end of the play, I was not entirely certain whether the Villameres were the same character bound by the book to repeat the experience or if they were related by blood. Again, two many riddles and not enough answers. The dusty offhanded set, by Kathryn Immonen, provides an early clue to the mystery. It is not only the archivist’s living room, but the journalist’s also, a generation earlier. Sookie Mei's sound and music plays nearly throughout the play as it might in a horror film. Mei uses eerie, intense sounds to keep the audience on edge.
After all this, I still say I liked the story. The plot is inventive and intriguing and there is so much opportunity for excellence that I found this production’s shortcomings frustrating. There is a lot to be said for handing a play over to a director for a fresh perspective. This would give the playwright time and energy to tweak the dialog so the characters interact with one another, eliminate the elements that muddle the plot, and clarify the mystery—which happens to be a good one.