An exploration of the universal challenge of everyday life and the simple words used to describe it, Middletown is an incredibly thoughtful installment in the University of Alberta drama department’s Studio Theatre season. It’s a show about living in the middle, between birth and death. Director Sandra M. Nichols puts together a well-orchestrated ensemble that forces the audience to sit and think about where they are in life and how similar it is to where everyone else is.
The set, lit and designed by Lee Livingstone, provides a bright atmosphere yet there is an ever-present darkness hanging over the play. Chris Pereira’s performance as the Mechanic steals the show, and he brings forth great comic relief through his portrayal of a rather dark character. Dave Clarke’s modern sound design, mixing soundscapes with electronic beats, is the final element that brings together the production’s contemplative atmosphere.
The show opens with a monologue. At centre stage, between two windows dangling from the ceiling, actress Laura Hughes invites the audience in and welcomes them to Middletown. Trying to be inclusive, she runs through dozens of terms describing people from all walks of life before finally settling on a word that encompasses everyone she wishes to acknowledge: “Breathers.” For this play, written by Will Eno, breathers are the audience, they are the characters on stage and they are the subject matter.
The witty script lets its words run rampant with metaphors, terms open to interpretation, and double entendres, before you realize that really the whole show is one giant allegory for the concept of being alive. Through openly musing about the words breathers use every day, the play provokes the audience to re-frame the mundane. Frequent fourth wall breaks immerse the audience in a contemplative mindset as the dialogue reminds us that things are not always as they seem. For example, a pregnant woman whose husband is nowhere to be found surely cannot be lonely because she is always with her unborn child.
The play is constantly self-reflexive. There are several ‘meta’ moments in the show such as the last scene before intermission, where several actors take on the role of audience members digesting the play during intermission. The performance literally turns into an analysis of the scenes just witnessed told from our perspective, and we are invited to think not only about where the characters are in their life, but also where we are in our own lives—right in the middle.
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