Last week, I went to see The Baby at the Storefront Theatre. It’s a stage version of the “cult film” by the same name. The 1973 film’s a howling melodrama, psychological thriller, and trashy as hell. This stage adaptation of The Baby, written and directed by Dan Spurgeon, is pure camp.
In The Baby, a young social worker (Jeanie Calleja) develops an obsessive relationship with a family, and in particular, with their “baby”. Baby is really an adult male who makes baby noises, wets his diaper, and crawls on the floor. In time, we understand Baby is more abused than handicapped. He’s cared for by his mother and his older siblings. Mama Wadsworth is played by Frank Blocker (in drag), and Baby’s two evil sisters are played by Claire Burns and Alicia Richardson. A whole passel of other characters show up in this twisted comedy that ends in brutal mayhem and a happy ending.
Jeff Dingle plays Baby with such imagination and physical inventiveness, one realizes he’s a unique talent. He’s got an acting range far beyond the sweet, innocent roles in which he’s often cast. Dingle could easily play a complex villain.
I laughed myself silly watching the whole thing and deeply enjoyed cameo performances by Alex Dault, Daniel Cristofori, Nicholas Porteous, and Paul Rivers. As a whole, the cast is quite terrific, including Olivia Marshman, Alicia Richarson, and Candi Zell.
But even as I watched The Baby, and laughed like a fool, I couldn’t quite figure out why you’d bring such wonderful actors together to put on pure junk? The stage adaptation, as well as the original film, has no more depth than some asinine TV show. The Baby as stage play is little more than an excuse to enjoy period music, drag, and nostalgic costumes. Actually, this show reminds me of drag shows, usually performed in gay bars in the 1970s, for the vivid amusement of drunken patrons.
To be sure, The Baby is so dim-witted, it’s fun. But something like The Rocky Horror Picture Show does this kind of camp much better, and it has great songs! Besides, Rocky Horror is a true cult flick, not The Baby, which I confess, I never heard of.
But let’s be honest, shall we? I go to The Storefront and other independent theatres to see some of the best actors in Toronto, often doing first-rate plays, new and old. It’s a genuine privilege to watch this level of skill and daring. So I’m a bit bewildered when I see actors who can perform Shakespeare handily quite satisfied to star in this kind of schlock. What lured them to this project?
We all love silly stuff sometimes, but in the past few months the Storefront has showcased vapid, pretentious plays like the Canadian Trout Stanley and the American House of Yes. These shows come across as better than they are simply because gifted actors make the material work. It’s like watching an experienced jockey riding what’s left of a crippled horse. You start to think, “Gee, why don’t they ride something that can still walk?” One begins to wonder if there’s even a selection process at the theatre, or is it just pot-luck?
Of all the art forms, theatre can deliver comedy that is both penetrating and funny; drama that you may remember your whole life. It sure as hell can deliver much more than a re-hash of over-rated drama and trashy movies. Why’s the Storefront working so hard to put on shows with no greater resonance than canned laughter?
There are SO many good scripts in the world. And even in Toronto, there is a wealth of new and promising playwrights. In the early 1970s, when the Toronto theatre scene was created, there was a real passion to produce new Canadian plays. Today, Toronto is sophisticated enough to produce all kinds of plays, drawn from the past, and from contemporary playwrights.
What’s troubling is that theatre is a highly-networked community that can itself become a “cult”, one that easily falls into group delusion. Soon, there’s no objective voices to ask simple, basic questions such as, “Why are we doing this particular play?” or “Is this play really very good?” At their core, plays are a form of intricate storytelling, and without a decent text, actors fall back on a bag of tricks to keep the audience engaged. But for all the actors’ efforts, even the most undemanding audience starts to ask, “Heck, what’s this play about?” To me, it’s especially sad when at the end, folks put on their coats and leave, confused by the fact that they’ve already forgotten what they’ve seen. In fact, they haven’t seen anything.
In 1970, before the Internet, you had to be a huge organization like the Stratford Festival to influence world theatre. Major critics had to write newspaper reviews to praise and publicize actors and playwrights. None of that is true today. Toronto is a major theatre centre, and with YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, theatre artists are globally networked. This means that even a small, focused band of artists can influence the performing arts. If you have the talent and the resources, why not use them?
Recently, a close friend said something to me that rings quite true. He noted, “When you go to a play in a small theatre, without the expensive costumes and set, you start to pay close attention to the writing, because really, that’s the show.” Most indie theatres are small, and that’s why text is paramount, and story is everything. And it’s why indie theatres can be a fertile garden for drama, for this generation.
The time has come for indie companies to concentrate on quality plays, not a re-hash of 10th rate scripts. One cannot “re-imagine” or “revitalize” work that never had any wit or substance in the first place. One can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, especially if the sow passed a long time back.
I firmly believe artists need praise, not criticism. But I feel compelled to encourage indie’s “movers and shakers” to look harder at why they’re squandering their special gifts in such a careless manner. Your audience isn’t stupid, and you have the ability to enrich their lives in ways you can only glimpse.
It’s time for The Storefront, and all the other Toronto indie theatres, to create what they were meant to do in the first place. Conjure the kind of drama that exists in few places on earth. You have the means. You have the will. You surely have the talent. Why do you wait?
“Wonderful things are trying to come into the world. We must welcome them.”
Tickets to The Baby at:
(All photographs by John Gundy)