Stage Door Review 2022
Monday, March 14, 2022
by Drew Carnwath, directed by Rosemary Doyle
Theatre Kingston, Baby Grand Theatre, Kingston
March 10-26, 2022
Jordan: “Not forgiveness, not compassion”
To celebrate Theatre Kingston’s 30th season the company has programmed the world premiere of Mercy, a play written by Drew Carnwath, an actor and playwright and alumnus of Queen’s University, and staged it with an all-Kingston-based cast. One could hardly imagine a better production of this play in terms of acting, direction or design. What nags at the mind is the contrivance of the plot that despite Carnwath’s best efforts never fully convinces.
The plot concerns Jordan (Helen Bretzke), a lawyer with a reputation for winning unwinnable cases, who seeks out Katherine (Tracey Guptill), a high-priced escort, to perform an unusual service. Jordan believes that her husband John is having an affair. She therefore wants to hire Katherine to seduce John and by means of photos produce evidence that he has been unfaithful.
As Katherine rightly points out, proving that John is unfaithful with her will not prove that he is unfaithful with the woman with whom John is actually having an affair. Why not hire a private detective instead? Yet, apparently, proving John is unfaithful is more important to Jordan than proving precisely whom he is unfaithful with. Though dubious of Jordan’s proposition, Katherine finds the large amount of money Jordan is offering attractive enough to investigate the situation and report back whether she will or will not take the assignment.
We the two women meet again, Katherine has scouted out John as a target. As Katherine suspected, Jordan has completely different motives for wishing Katherine to seduce John, so Katherine tells Jordan she refuses to take on the job. Unfortunately, Jordan has done some research into Katherine’s background and has found she has a secret that, if exposed, would ruin her. Using this threat Jordan forces Katherine to complete the assignment against her will.
At this point, I can’t reveal more. Carnwath has structured the play so that we don’t really trust Jordan in her first meeting with Katherine, but we are meant to believe Jordan’s story in her second meeting with Katherine. The trouble is that Jordan’s real reason for employing Katherine to seduce her husband is even more convoluted and less believable that was her first reason.
Carnwath seems not to have thought through fully what the results of Katherine’s successful completion of the assignment would be, i.e. it could very well not benefit Katherine at all and could even ruin her. This is a case of a playwright forcing the action to take a particular course, logical or not, so that it reaches a desired outcome.
Interspersed with Jordan’s dealings with Katherine are scenes of Jordan presenting at or preparing for a trial of a young offender, a member of a white supremacist group, who assaulted an Middle Eastern student leaving him in a coma. This is one of “unwinnable” cases she is known for, but she looks on her way to winning this one, too. Most notably she appeals to the judge that what he must show is “Not forgiveness, not compassion, but mercy”. What we have to wonder is how Jordan can ask for mercy for a racist thug and but is unable to show any mercy towards her own husband.
This, at least, is how we think Carnwath frames his argument in the play. In fact, Carnwath engineers the action to end in two major twists. These are believable only if we think the action takes place in a reasonable world in which people recognize the truth in what someone says even if that person has previously been an adversary. The trouble is that Carnwath has not shown the world of his play to be especially reasonable. Indeed, he has painted it as replete with suspicion and deception from the very beginning.
Despite the fact that Carnwath requires us to suspend too much disbelief to accept what happens, the play is still enjoyable to watch. Carnwath says in his “Words from the Playwright” that “The inspiration to write this play, specifically, was a desire to write a drama ... featuring two strong women from very different worlds, who spend the majority of the action squaring off in a battle of wills, wit and intelligence”. This is exactly what Carnwath has done and simply following the to-and-fro of the battle of words and its attendant sorties and surprises is very well performed by Bretzke and Guptill and lent a high degree of tension by director Rosemary Doyle.
Carnwath also says that “if Mercy is ‘about’ anything, it is about performance and role-playing”. This is also true, and even if the particulars of his plot are not always credible, it is still fascinating to watch how Bretzke and Guptill adopt various strategies of disguising their thoughts.
Guptill has a virtuoso turn in displaying Katherine’s ability to play roles when she demonstrates to Jordan what types of women might turn her husband on – the Baby Doll, the Femme Fatale or the Mail-Order Bride – and gives very different spot-on depictions of each stereotype. Guptill gives the impression of a woman who uses her sex-appeal as a disguise for her intelligence. Bretzke, in contrast, shows that Jordan’s main technique in negotiation is evasion. Bretzke plays Jordan as a formidable opponent who uses facts as much to sway opinion as to reveal a truth. The action reaches a point where it becomes difficult to know whether either of the two characters ever stops playing a role.
Doyle’s one questionable decision (or perhaps it is in Carnwath’s text) is to suggest that Jordan would not be as averse to a fling with Katherine as she claims she is. This scene is so convincing we think that this will somehow become part of the plot, but after the first scene any hint of attraction between the two disappears.
Clelia Scala had designed a set that evinces a keen understanding of the action. The first two meetings between Katherine and Jordan are meant to take place in a dive bar. Scala has chosen to make the playing area triangular and to set it off from the seating area by giving it bright green carpeting. On this green triangle she places a small-scale pool table with a cloth of the same colour as the carpet. When we enter the Baby Grand Theatre actors Noah Laprade and Matthew Rowsell, who also function as ASMs, are improvising a pool game and the chat that would accompany it. Every time one of them sets up the balls with the rack, we see a triangle inside the triangle of the set. The visual triangles naturally suggest the interpersonal triangles to follow – whether Jordan, John and John’s other woman or Jordan, Katherine and John. The game of pool sets up the atmosphere for the game of wits that the two women will carry on.
Carnwath has many fine points to make in Mercy about power relationships and the limits men impose on women. He is, however, strongest in his depiction of a cat-and-mouse game of role-playing where who is the cat and who the mouse is one of its most fascinating features. See Mercy for the exciting interplay of Bretzke and Guptill and be proud that Kingston has local actors of such high calibre to intrigue us.
Photo: Helen Bretzke; Tracey Guptill. © Theatre Kingston.
For tickets visit www.theatrekingston.com.