Stage Door Review
Friday, September 15, 2023
by Marie Beath Badian, directed by Nina Lee Aquino
Factory Theatre, Toronto
September 6-17, 2023;
Prairie Theatre Exchange, Winnipeg
November 14-29, 2023;
Great Canadian Theatre Company, Ottawa
February 13-23, 2024
Romeo: “It’s just you and me and the stars”
The Waltz by Marie Beath Badian returns to Factory Theatre, where it premiered last year, before it tours to Winnipeg and Ottawa. Although written as a sequel to Badian’s highly successful comedy Prairie Nurse (2013), The Waltz is a play so slight that it is close to insubstantial. The two plays are the first two segments of what Badian calls The Prairie Trilogy. Throughout the play’s 70 minutes I was aware that Badian meant the play to be charming and romantic while actually feeling that the piece was contrived and artificial.
The time is 1993 and the place somewhere near Arborfield, Saskatchewan, the same town (pop. 326) where Prairie Nurse is set. The action takes place in front of the cabin of Puring and Wilf Klassen, the two characters who fall in love at first sight in Prairie Nurse. As we discover, the two have married and Beatrice, called Bea, the girl guarding the cabin in their absence, is their teenaged daughter.
Disturbing her peace is the arrival of Romeo Alvarez, a teenager driving from Scarborough, Ontario, to Vancouver, BC, where he has a scholarship to study at UBC. Romeo’s mother has told Romeo he must stop by when he reaches Saskatchewan to say hello from her. As we discover, Romeo’s mother is none other than Penny, another character from Prairie Nurse.
Penny and Puring were two nurses from the Philippines who arrived together in Arborfield in 1967 for better nursing jobs. Penny had left hoping to earn enough money in Canada to sponsor her fiancé from the Philippines to join her. As we discover, Penny did sponsor her fiancé and married him.
Thus, Bea and Romeo are the children of the two Filipinx nurses of the previous play. What makes little sense is that Bea and Romeo never realize that their mothers knew each other. Badian gets around this by having Romeo say he has come to see Dr. Miles MacGreggor, the sportsman doctor in Prairie Nurse, but never mentions Puring or Wilf, whom Penny also knew. We know that Puring and Penny were not friends, but it seems odd to say the least that Penny would tell Romeo to see MacGreggor without ever mentioning Puring or Wilf.
Badian does this because she wants Bea and Romeo’s meeting to represent two opposite things. She wants the meeting of the two to appear as if it were ordained by a mysterious fate. Yet, she also wants the play to follow the pattern of a stereotypical romantic comedy in which two people intensely dislike each other on first meeting only to fall in love by the end. The meeting of the two teens would hardly be mysterious if Badian had not suppressed the fact of their mothers knowing each other. Neither would it be filled with animosity at the start. Romeo has a photo with him of Dr. MacGreggor, but Bea disregards it and keeps to her hostile stance toward Romeo far beyond what would be natural.
In fact, Badian’s picture for the first meeting of Bea and Romeo is quite amusing even though it is totally contrived. Bea sees a young man loaded down with luggage approaching her porch and reaches for her crossbow. Is that really how people brought up in small town Canada greet a stranger? Maybe in the US, but in Canada? As for Romeo, since when, in dropping in on someone for the first time to you carry all your luggage with you? He supposedly has come just to say hello, not move in. Is Romeo afraid that his car will be robbed in the middle of nowhere?
From this point on, the play consists of a series of attempts by Romeo to soften Bea’s inexplicably negative attitude toward him. Step by step Romeo draws Bea out and discovers that her unfriendliness toward him may be a product of her negative self-image.
It happens that one of Romeo’s side-gigs has been choreographing dances for Filipinx “debuts”. Badian does not gloss this, but a “debut” or “cotillion” is the debutante ball that wealthy Filipinx families hold for their daughters’ 18th birthday, thus announcing her adulthood and marriageability. The ballroom dance that is central to any debut is the waltz, hence the title. Bea and Romeo are both fans of the 1964 film The Sound of Music and by the end of the play the two are dancing to the ländler from that film, the ländler being the folkdance that later became the waltz. The last image of the play is lovely with the two teens dancing an antiquated dance, but only if you happen to know about the traditions of the “debut” will you realize the symbolic nature of the image, i.e., Bea’s private coming-of-age celebration.
While it may be that this final image of the two dancing is meant to be charming, it is also confusing. Romeo and Bea seem to have fallen in love in only 70 minutes, but is this a good thing? Romeo is supposed to be heading off to UBC? Does the ending mean that he won’t? Or will he leave Bea behind just as he has left his present girlfriend Cherie behind in Toronto? The full import of Bea and Romeo’s meeting may not be clear until Badian presents part three of The Prairie Trilogy, so it is impossible to know whether we are meant to be happy for the couple or not.
Love at first sight was a comic feature of Prairie Nurse. In The Waltz, Badian seems to be mocking the concept through the names she has given her characters. Shakespeare’s Romeo famously falls in love with Juliet at first sight, “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! / For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night”. Earlier,Dante, author of the Divine Comedy(1321), which mentions the Montagues and Capulets, first saw and fell in love with Beatrice Portinari when they were both nine years old. He wrote about his instant love for her in his Vita Nuova (1294) and loved her from afar for the rest of her life (she died at age 24) and after. In the Paradiso, the third part of the Divine Comedy, it is Beatrice who leads the character Dante to view heaven and the stars. In The Waltz, it is Bea who shows Romeo the stars of the immense prairie sky.
Contrary to their lofty names, Badian fully immerses the two in the popular culture of the 1990s and their common discourse and initial Beatrice and Benedick dislike is completely unlike the poetic language and instant love of Romeo and Juliet or of Dante and Beatrice. The characters’ names give a mixed message. Romeo and Juliet’s love was mutual, but the real Beatrice was never aware of Dante’s love. So which iconic couple does she mean to suggest?
Given the ontrived nature of the play, director Nina Lee Aquino attempts to make the action appear as natural as possible. Like many young actors, both Anthony Perpuse as Romeo and Ericka Leobrera as Bea tend to shout rather than project. Luckily, however, they speak clearly and don’t fall into the other common habit of mumbling. Perpuse makes Romeo an eminently likeable character. Perpuse wins us to Romeo’s side when Bea treats Romeo rudely and he makes us admire Romeo’s tenacity in trying to find a way to get through to Bea. Perpuse is also a fine dancer and is able to pull off his lively routines with verve.
Leobrera presents Bea as rather an enigma. From Bea’s initial over-reaction with the crossbow to nearly the end, she makes Bea so testy and unpleasant that it’s hard to know what Romeo sees in her. Leobrera does make us feel that Bea’s cynicism is a cover for her low self-esteem, particularly in relation to her seemingly perfect younger sister. In the text Bea’s loosening up corresponds to the amount she drinks, so that we have to wonder whether it is Romeo’s charm that is having its effect or merely that the alcohol is disinhibiting her.
By the end of the play Badian fails to answer a number of questions that the text brings up. Romeo leaves Toronto to get away from the father he hates. But he also leaves behind his girlfriend Cherie. That must mean that Romeo’s hatred for his father far outweighs any love he has for his girlfriend, but Badian says nothing about this. As for Bea, she says she was bullied because of her skin colour. Then, why was it that her sister was not bullied? Did she somehow better blend in with the Caucasian Saskatchewanians? Also, Badian has Bea mention that some terrible incident happened to her in school, but Badian never reveals what it was or why it was so terrible. This is rather too bad since the incident might help explain Bea’s strange behaviour.
Badian claims that each of the plays of The Prairie Trilogy can be seen as a stand-alone work, but, having seen Prairie Nurse just last month, I found that the more you remember from that play the more you will get out of The Waltz. The Waltz itself feels like a transitional play, the full meaning of which we won’t understand until we see The Cottage Guest, the third play of the trilogy still in development. On her website Badian says The Waltz depicts “one accidentally romantic evening on the Canadian prairies”. That’s rather disingenuous. The play does feel "accidentally romantic” at all since Badian has forced it so deliberately into romantic a mold.
Photo: Anthony Perpuse as Romeo and Ericka Leobrera as Bea. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.