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The funny thing about Speaking in Tongues, now on at the Belfry, is certain things stayed with me, though I have my issues with the play. I doubt the set design or costumes will win any awards if only because an apparent bias against modern costumes, and the set, while well designed, is nothing close to the spectacular piece of art seen last years in And Slowly Beauty (also at the Belfry). Still, the one thing I kept coming back to was how well the set and costumes suited the characters. Both these items made them seem familiar and mundane, but in a good way. There is a lot of drama in this play, some of it well done, some of it a little far fetched, but these characters are nothing special. They are ordinary people, living their ordinary lives, with a mixed degree of happiness. In short they feel real, and yet Speaking in Tongues suffers from an affliction that dogs many a prime time television drama; the so called normal-ness, or relatability, of its characters is undercut by the fact they experience certain events that are out of the realm of ordinary (or even plausible). I’m not referring to the second part of the play, which deals with a missing wife. Sadly, people go missing, and just because most of us, thankfully, never experience the loss of a loved one in that way, does not mean it doesn’t make for compelling drama. My real problem stems from how in trying to show we are all connected, it has certain characters meet up at certain times, or engage in certain relationships, that asked more of my suspension of disbelief than I was willing to partake. It veers a little too close to soap opera, and it’s to the show’s detriment.
I’m being intentionally vague about specifics, in part because the fun of this show is discovering how all the characters, -ten in total, played by four actors – connect to one another. I knew nothing about this play going in, and though I have since learned you can easily find out how John of the second act, connects to Pete of the first, all I can say is it’s best to avoid the synopsis in the program and let it unravel naturally before you. I liked how there were parts the actors intentionally spoke over one another, and even delivered the same lines. Most of the play has different scenes playing out concurrently, which was surprisingly easy to follow, and helped to highlight the relationships each character had to one another. At times, it was genuinely funny to see two very different characters deliver the same lines (they’re not so different after all) but the ending is weak. It plays into the whole idea of it ultimately being better to trust those around us, even strangers, though people by their nature are bound to hurt one another, but asking me to believe a particular connection between three of the second act characters seemed lazy and melodramatic. Something akin to a plot device on Grey’s Anatomy, rather than a stellar play.
None of this play would have worked if not for the actors involved, who all turn out solid work. I can only imagine how intentionally stepping on each others lines might be a little frazzling, and that perhaps is why at times I felt a little lacking in energy or flow, but each manage to make smooth transitions between their various and sometime disparate characters. If the woman of the show, particularly Yanna McIntosh as Sonja and Valerie, tended to outshines the men slightly, I think it had more to to with the fact their characters were more interestingly written.
Overall I’d say the play is saved from itself by what manages to be a strong production, not the first time I’ve seen this at the Belfry. Also, OH MY GOD! That’s the woman from Murdoch Mysteries.
Review by Elizabeth Marsh
Speaking in Tongues runs at The Belfry until Feb. 24
Tickets at belfry.bc.ca or 250-385-6815