Victoria Playhouse – July 2, 2022
Fusty old fuddy-duddy that I am, I’m seldom the hippest hepcat regarding the quirks of modern slang; but I have taken a shine to “shipping” as a term used since the late ‘90s to describe fans who perceive or push for romance between established fictional characters with no confirmed love connection.
Before its July 2 premiere ended, I was shipping the heck out of Victoria Playhouse’s new production of Beyond the Sea, a whip-smart and witty comedic two-hander written by Kristen Da Silva for the Lighthouse Theatre Festival in 2021, a critical and commercial hit at the time despite pandemic conditions.
Set on a smalltown pier, it’s the story of a chance encounter between Gwen and Theo, the former manning a kitschy ticket booth for boat tours designed to seek out ghostly local legend “the Woman in White,” and the latter waiting for his overdue date so they can take the tour together.
Theo (portrayed by Playhouse newcomer Andy Trithardt) & Gwen (eight-time Playhouse veteran Johanna Nutter) meet as strangers, awkwardly at first as a hot, tired, impatient Gwen mocks and teases the fussy, neurotic Theo; but the more they talk, the more these two thoughtful, disillusioned romantics start to click, and before long we’re hoping that Theo’s date never appears.
It sounds like a standard meet-cute, will-they-won’t-they setup, and there are elements of that here, but the story also goes to deeper, darker places than one might expect. As Nutter remarks in a recent CBC Mainstreet interview, her long theatre career means she often finds scripts predictable; but she says, “the ending of this play just pulled the emotional rug out from under me.”
The ending Nutter references is a real surprise, though Da Silva’s script plays fair by laying a foundation for it beforehand. It’s a twist, but a twist rooted in established character and narrative, so the story’s climax is as believable and logical as it is dramatic, not just contrived theatrics.
As impressive as the show’s more dramatic elements prove to be, though, the Playhouse’s first-rate production is first and foremost funny – cleverly, playfully, unpredictably, near-relentlessly funny. Da Silva’s script, Charlotte Gowdy’s direction and the Nutter-Trithardt duo’s golden comedic chemistry probably gave me more and better laughs than any show I’ve seen in years.
Gowdy and scenic/lighting designer Brenda Chicas-Duran also ensure this is a play that looks as good as it sounds, crafting an attractive and extensively detailed pier set complete with bench, streetlamp, the stage-spanning dock itself and my favourite part: Gwen’s tour counter, looking like some elongated Gothic horror cousin of Lucy Van Pelt’s five-cent psychiatric help booth.
Interestingly, Gowdy both opens and closes the show with love songs popular circa 1959: “Theme from A Summer Place” and “Beyond the Sea.” While the latter’s inclusion seems inevitable, the former has more resonance with this show than meets the eye. Best known in its purely instrumental form used here, the song’s seldom-heard lyrics say “…the sweet secret of/A summer place/Is that it’s anywhere/When two people share/All their hopes/All their dreams/All their love.”
Da Silva’s two complex, likeable, fully human and slightly haunted characters share a great deal of themselves with each other and with us, and the result is an evening of superb theatre.