Danny and that question

I’m viewing Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, the live show I saw previewed tonight, through the same lens through which I stared at La La Land last night. Yesterday was a big movie house full of people. Tonight was an immersive presentation of John Patrick Shanley’s play in a small room in a bar in downtown Toronto. Where LLL asked us whether art should care whether we reach the faces in the crowd, DDBS is right in those faces, who wouldn’t be there if they didn’t care. It’s very intimate.

And yet the big question I asked last night is the same one I’m asking today. Are happy endings possible?  The heart sometimes opens up to the possibility, sometimes closes off, recoiling from our own dream.

The question carries different weight in this utterance. I am finding myself noticing that maybe everything artistic is a kind of proposition, a hypothesis. Sure, you thought Star Trek or Twilight or the Magic Flute were attempts to tell a story. But before any of that, they inoculate you, jabbing something into you that infects you with the possibility of something other than what is literally so. Yes we see spaceships or vampires or singers in these three examples, and if we stay with the story it’s because we buy its hypothesis, that those characters can hold our attention because they persuade us to see more than just actors or singers.

I went into a small room, then after I’d removed my coat, briefly retreated to the washroom to relieve myself. Upon my return, while I was still in the room, I wasn’t alone, because Bria McLaughlin was sitting in the middle of the room.

Where should I sit, I wondered? Bria is a lovely person of course, but no, this was not really Bria, but “Roberta” her character in Danny & the Deep Blue Sea. I was tempted for a moment to sit right in front of her. She’s very beautiful and I enjoy looking at beautiful people (don’t you?). But I also knew that I didn’t want to in any way make this immersive thing any harder by making eye contact with her. Every seat in this charming little room was a front-row seat, so I chose to sit behind her, which might make things easier. So I pulled out my phone and took some pictures. Because the show hadn’t started yet this was permitted, whereas it wouldn’t be once they were underway.


The place started to fill up somewhat.

And then Dylan Brenton came in: but no it wasn’t Dylan, it was “Danny”, his character. I glanced his way and again stayed away from eye contact, not sure exactly what the unspoken contract was about the show. I knew Danny to be a violent character from what I’ve read. If I made eye contact would I be in danger?

Yes I know that sounds silly. I asked this question only partly in jest. There’s something slightly dangerous and illicit about sitting in the front row and interacting with a show. I find it intoxicating, that sense of breaking the rules. I do it all the time when I can get away with it. It’s a great way to meet people you admire. But I wasn’t yet sure what our ground-rules were so I kept quiet and distant.

The show begins very quietly, gently. Danny talks to Roberta. At one point a guy sitting a bit to my left seems to get a rise out of Danny, who sounds as though he wants to hit him (hm… stronger language than that come to think of it. Hit him? Or smash his face in? something like that).

We’re in the cage with the lions. And need to be careful of getting scratched.

The play unfolds, and I’m struck as usual by questions of age. In opera we accept that the ages are miles away from what the storytelling requires. Juliette is supposed to be 12, Butterfly 15, and at the very least, Mimi is young enough to move a young man by her beauty: when she’s unconscious, so it’s not just for her ears and therefore it must be his true thought.  Live spoken theatre doesn’t have the musical element to stylize and invite a huge imaginative leap.  Dylan told me he’s 24 in his recent interview. I suspect Bria is roughly the same age because I think they were in the same year at Ryerson.

They are both younger than my kids (who are in their 30s). And they’re telling a story that must be told by people in their 20s. As I’ve noticed before –when thinking about my life, when talking to anyone about their life—the 20s is surely the toughest decade of a person’s life. Suddenly you have adult bodies and hormones and capabilities to procreate and fight and get drunk and kill yourself, but also, with the urgent need to figure out what you’re going to do with your life. Some do, some don’t. And that’s why being in your 20s is so hard. To portray this when you’re older so much is missing, lost in translation. Before a word is spoken their bodies make it 100% authentic.

Shanley’s language is very direct. I read the program note by director Tony Perpuse, which nails one of the keys of this play, both as an objective he aimed for, and as a reality brought home by Bria and Dylan in their performances: that we’re watching theatre representing the working class. I remember when I used to do construction, I dreamed of writing something authentic to capture work and workers, and it’s still a dream I haven’t managed. It’s tough enough if this writing is a novel, but in a theatre people will listen and critique actors, questioning the authenticity of that voice. And even if this feat is achieved, unless the listeners themselves are workers, it may be an unrecognizable idiom to the ear of those listeners.

And to add insult to injury actors need to turn off their powerful apparatus, namely their instrument. Actors build their bodies and especially their voices for Shakespeare or Sondheim: which doesn’t sound like the guy punching the clock or the lady on the assembly line.

There we were with Bria and Dylan, who started so softly. I leaned forward because my space was not being invaded, because the soft delivery invited me to pay attention, to hear them. They spoke to one another with the delicacy of any bar proposition, man and woman feeling each other out. Yes it builds, but it’s always scaled to the room.

But it’s a highly unlikely thing in some ways. Danny & Roberta, the two people who come together in this story are in their way just like the couple I saw in La la Land last night. We watch romance as they attempt to leap across a gap, to make contact and find a common language. It’s a painful story, but one of redemption and humanity. We are teased again and again, and it’s that same romantic question that is the feather tickling you, as we dare to ask and perhaps believe in the impossible dream of romance, a pair of abrasive people who rub and scratch against each other.

This was a preview.  Danny & the Deep Blue Sea will be presented by Wolf Manor Collective in at least a couple of venues around Toronto over the next couple of weeks. For more information have a look at their website. For tickets click.


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