Your old-timey observer’s been at this reviewing racket long enough that I inevitably cover certain plays more than once – and Morris Panych’s short-and-sweet-and-sour black comedy 7 Stories is the latest example. After reviewing ACT’s fine production at the Carrefour 19 years ago, it’s a nostalgic treat to see the show back in Charlottetown, this time courtesy of the PEI Pay-What-You-Can Theatre Festival.
Panych’s 1989 script features a seemingly suicidal, well-dressed man (played here by Mark Fraser) perched on a seventh-floor building ledge where he encounters and reluctantly interacts with the building’s oft-odd inhabitants (Adam Brazier, Melissa Kramer, Becca Griffin, John MacCormac, Fraser McCallum, Rosie Shaw and Rory Starkman), most of whom are immersed more in their own stories than the ledge-walker’s situation.
To quote McQuaid 2000 (futuristic-sounding yet retro), Panych’s funny, thought-provoking text remains “a serious human drama that isn’t afraid to dabble in moments of whimsy and flights of metadramatic fancy.” Kooky old McQuaid 2019 sees echoes of Will Eisner stories in it, with its compactly quirky urban slices-of-life and its pleasantly surreal climax recalling one Eisner Spirit tale in particular (sorry, no spoilers).
Rigidly confined to a single, sharply-defined space for nearly the entire play, 7 Stories fits this close-quarters venue so well it’s like it was written for the Guild. Director Donnie Macphee and set carpenter Jeana MacIsaac fill their stage with that ledge and a nicely crafted, seven-windowed faux brick wall behind it, and Macphee’s cast invest their parts with plenty of energy and animation despite the cramped setting. The production is defined by that setting, but never feels limited by it.
The show’s success hinges largely on that excellent cast, most of whom play two or more parts over the course of the story, all distinctive and often memorable. Some of the best bits include Brazier & Kramer as violently toxic couple Rodney and Charlotte, MacCormac as paranoid psychiatrist Leonard, McCallum as genial fraud Marshall (complete with two fun accents), Griffin as anguished interior design victim Joan, Brazier & Shaw as deeply shallow party guests Percy & Jennifer, and Shaw as sly, elderly shut-in Lillian.
Of course, the connective tissue holding all those fun performances together is Mark Fraser’s nameless man, who acts as observer and sounding board for much of the play until his own story eventually gets the spotlight. That’s a lot of time spent largely reacting, which Fraser does well – he’s always engaged in the scene, even when the focus is on other players, and he sustains a nervous energy that makes his character interesting to watch long before we reach the bigger, showier parts of his performance.
In one of the play’s many meta-theatrical moments, actor turned con artist Marshall (in a deftly casual, understated line reading here from McCallum) mocks the absurd, futile inadequacy of theatrical art imitating life, “squeezing a whole existence into a measly evening’s entertainment on the stage”; but Panych, Macphee, Fraser and friends squeeze over a dozen lives into this particular evening, with results not so much measly as magnificent.