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GCTC's Democracy: Thinker or Doer?

Fri Jan 27, 2006 Miss Vicky 

The Webgeek and I checked out the preview of the new GCTC production of John Murrell's Democracy. I think this ranks at the top of the plays we've seen this season. It's more cerebral than the other plays - it takes place during a day beside a country pond with Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson - and the dialogue is a bit more challenging. I walked out stimulated (in a good way this time), talking a mile a minute about the play as we strolled home along Gladstone.

The set was beautiful and the lighting met the usual high standards we have come to expect from the GCTC. But what really drew me in were the performances. Incredible. All four actors were excellent, but Jack Wetherall's portrayal of Emerson was particularly fantastic - an intellect uncomfortable in his own skin, appalled yet intrigued by Whitman's gregarious physicality. Subtly acted, and absolutely brilliant. Geordie Johnson's Whitman was also very very good - not as bombastic as I always pictured Whitman to be, but rather warm, affectionate and quite likeable.

The play takes place during the stormy years of the American Civil War - both poets are struggling to make sense of the toll the war is taking on a whole generation of Americans. Emerson, the thinker, looks to reason for spiritual enlightenment and redemption. Whitman's work as a nurse has brought him close to injured soldiers; he basically collects the wounded and lost and takes care of them, both physcially and spiritually. He finds beauty in even the most terrible of circumstances . So the play is essentially a debate between Emerson's approach to war, death and democracy and Whitman's, between the thought and experience, between finding beauty and truth in the intellectual versus the physical world.

The poets are paired up with younger counterparts - Pete, a dreamy deserter from the South who is being harboured by Whitman, and Jimmy, an injured Nothern soldier Whitman has brought from the hospital to the pond for the day. One would think that Pete's physicality (he spends most of the play buck naked - fair warning folks!) would put him in the Whitman camp, but his aversion to the horror of death and war and his retreat into dream and song reveals more of an affinity to Emerson. Jimmy, on the other hand, trapped in an injued body and unable to experience the physical as he once was, is thoughtful and observant (philosophically, that is - he was blinded by his injuries) searches for balance between the two perspectives.

One disappointing aspect of the night, for me, was the audience's reaction. Where previous productions have been greeted with thunderous applause and standing ovations (whether deserved or not), this one was met with polite applause and bums still in seats. Yet this play was far superior, especially in the quality of the acting. I really thought Ottawa theatregoers were more sophisticated, not just looking for simple entertainment. If I want to be entertained, I stay home and rent action flicks. When I go to the theatre, I'm looking for more. And with this play, I got more.

Some people were moved to reply

The Webgeek Jan 27, 2006 01:26 PM said:

Where previous productions have been greeted with thunderous applause and standing ovations (whether deserved or not), this one was met with polite applause and bums still in seats.

I think part of the issue with its luke warm was the percieved homosexual overtones.

First off: It wasn't stated or clear that Whitman was actually acting in a nurse capacity. It just seemed like he was a (somewhat creepy) old guy taking young boys out of hospital to go "swimming". In fact, I only found out he was a nurse during the Civil war afterwards -- it was mentioned in the prologue of Miss Vicky's copy of "the Portable Whitman".

Second: The play is written in a very historically accurate manner -- I believe even using Whitman and Emersons own words much of the time. As such the "brotherly love" displayed and discussions of male beauty that Whitman and Emerson partake in seem much more homo-erotic when filtered through our "modern" perception than was intended -- much like Frodo & Sam's relationship seemed in the Lord of the Ring movies.

Third: The naked dude running around on stage. Again, no doubt historically accurate -- when guys got together to go swimming, it was done au naturel -- but still disqueting in our now "enlightened" era. Granted you don't see full frontal nudity all that often -- the character spend most of the time in the pond -- but there's still shlong flopping around from time to time. It's amazing how uncomfortable people are about male nudity. I must admit that I usually started checking out the set design -- which was phenominal -- when "little Pete" came out.

Miss Vicky Jan 27, 2006 01:45 PM said:

So basically what you're saying is: Ottawa audiences are prudes?

The Webgeek Jan 27, 2006 04:22 PM said:

Well, maybe the ones that go to GCTC are...

dave Jan 28, 2006 12:42 PM said:

Will think of you if this appears during next year's Edinburgh Festival, amongst thousands of others.

Here's a favourite play to suggest your guys put on - 'Eleemosynary' - about a girl's obsession with unusual words - the play's big revelation at the end, the denouement, is the meaning of eleemosynary - the double 'e' is pronounced as per 'fiancee'.

dave Jan 28, 2006 12:50 PM said:

Mildly amusing to see 'costume design' - the designer made him wear a puddle throughout the play.

The Webgeek Jan 28, 2006 01:36 PM said:

the designer made him wear a puddle throughout the play.

Actually, he also wore pants and suspenders sometimes too. I think he even had a shirt on at the very begining & near the end.

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