Frankie & Johnny bring Immersive Theatre to Ottawa

Frankie and johny posterIt is with excitement and anticipation that we awaited Vacant House Theatre‘s latest production Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Following last spring’s outrageously entertaining inaugural production this company marked itself as one to watch for its talent and innovative approach to staging.

Last year’s stage was the laundry room at the Backpacker’s Hostel this season we are invited inside Frankie’s poky Manhattan apartment; ushered down a narrow back staircase to a tiny basement apartment in Sandy Hill. The audience is clustered in two rows of folding chairs in one corner as the play unfolds literally at arms length.

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune follows the lunar trajectory of a first date between two greasy-spoon co-workers where a tumble in bed ignites Johnny’s (David Whiteley) feverish romantic embers countered by Frankie’s (Alexis Scott) restrained caution, accepting as she is of her current uninspiring and solitary life. Eager to return to her private world she brushes off Johnny’s declarations of love and tries to rid her apartment of this excitable stranger. Can two middle-aged world-weary souls connect and reach for the romantic moonlight reflected in the strains of Debussy’s Clair de Lune.?

Frankie and Johnny setThe sparseness of the Vacant House Theatre venue enhances the intimacy and immediacy of the “on-stage” action. There is nowhere for these actors to hide a momentary lapse of concentration not that either of them try – both Whiteley and Scott are fully committed to their characters throughout the two act performance. Tumbling naked from the bed to lie not even feet from the audience is not for the faint of heart yet Whiteley & Scott tackle the opener with such natural ease that we’re instantly enwrapped in this middle-of-the-night conversation.

As the night progresses David Whitely reveals a Johnny that is a hopeless romantic frantically clinging to the urgent need to “connect” now. His desperation for grand gestures as his temples grey verges on manic. Alexis is fierce in her resistance – rejecting this idealised view and doubting any fateful signs. Together they work beautifully to convey the letdown of a “life more ordinary” and the self-doubts that accompany mid-life spread.

The performances are tremendous – Whiteley on fine form while Scott is committedly real and beautifully vulnerable. Sadly, Terrence McNally’s work fairly screams late 80’s. Johnny’s patriarchal notion of romance veers to domineering and stalker-like in particular when Frankie insists that Johnny leave her home and he flatly refuses causing the woman behind me to murmur “this is making me very uncomfortable”. For many people today the idea of being bullied in to seizing the day may not resonate as a fairytale. And it’s an interesting segue that Frankie watches domestic abuse in the window across from her own nightly. Tying these two elements together could provide a built-in element to update this play seamlessly.

Regardless of questions the talents in this two-hander swing the balance firmly in favour of this production which delivers unique and accomplished performances and a truly immersive night out.

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
Vacant House Theatre
May 21-30th 8PM
122 Stewart St

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