Monday, June 22, 2009

Grandpa Sol and Grandma Rosie

"Grandpa Sol and Grandma Rosie" is “one woman’s adventures in aged care”. Jackie is a nurse who works in a Jewish Home for the elderly, and the show is about how she comes to terms with her own mortality by spending time with the residents in her care. Lana Schwarcz, who is here all the way from Australia, is the creator and performer of “Grandpa Sol”. She is joined on stage by a number of puppets who play the elderly characters in the home.

"Grandpa Sol" was created using a technique called verbatim theatre. Schwarcz interviewed a number of senior citizens and then used those interviews to construct the piece. Interestingly, this is the second show in the Ottawa Fringe to employ this technique. In "This is a Recording", the actors repeat (verbatim) the stories they have collected (as well as sharing a couple of their own) and the audience also gets to hear pieces of recorded interview. In "G
randpa Sol", Schwarcz listens to the interviews through headphones, and then repeats the words to the audience. Her choice to use headphones helps her to directly mimic the accents and speech patterns of those who have been recorded. Often, the voice is that of someone from the Monash Home for the Aged in Melbourne, and is used as she manipulates one of the puppets.

There are a lot of interesting concepts in this show; for example there is a bingo game where moving eyeballs and dentures represent both the people playing the game and the bingo card itself (watch the promo video and you'll understand what I'm talking about). The problem with having a number of interesting concepts is that the show does lack focus. The title: "Grandpa Sol and Grandma Rosie", led me to believe they would be the central characters. But they are only two of the elderly characters featured in the play, and the more memorable scenes don't include them. There is a scene at the very end that explains why these characters are now "Grandpa and Grandma" but the main action of the play involves Nurse Jackie talking to the audience about why she is afraid of growing old.

There are flashbacks to her time at nursing school, and to her interview at the nursing home. And during these interludes, the puppet characters are slumped over in chairs, sometimes teetering dangerously making me nervous they will fall over. Puppets are distracting, whether they are speaking or not, and seeing their lifeless half bodies surrounding Jackie as she relates or enacts stories from her past certainly detracts from the desired effect.

The other thing I found distracting was the staging. Most of the action took place upstage right, so it felt a bit like everything was squished into one corner. Most notably, Sol and Rosie were in the corner upstage right, so each time Schwarz was manipulating one of those puppets she felt far away from the audience and was right up against the curtain. Now, there is any number of explanations for this: could have been an issue with the space, adjusting the show to a new venue, working with the existing lighting design - I understand it must be difficult especially for someone touring on their own to work with all of these variables and be successful in a such a short amount of time. But I mention it because it is part of the overall impression of the show, and the impression I had the night I saw it was that the staging was awkward.

Lana Schwarz is delightfully personable, her charm and that wonderful Australian accent make her instantly likable. She is also very good at manipulating the simple yet effectively designed puppets and she does a great job at mastering the accents and conveying the voices and stories of the old people. I just wasn't sure what I was meant to take away from this piece and it is almost two shows in one. On the one hand, it is a one woman show about overcoming loneliness and fear of aging. On the other, it is a verbatim theatre piece using puppets, about Jewish senior citizens in a nursing home.

While both interesting in their own way, ultimately these two driving forces conflict - because they in fact interrupt one another - the structure of the piece is such that the scenes with the seniors are interspersed with moments from Jackie's life. Also, you never get to see enough of either aspect for it to be satisfying. This is why for me, this piece does not succeed. It is entertaining, but problematic.

Rating: O
Grandpa Sol and Grandma Rosie runs June 21 - 28 in Alumni Auditorium as part of the Ottawa Fringe Festival.