Daniel MacIvor’s plays have been labeled everything from postmodern to meta-theatrical, but these are cold terms that do nothing to capture the warm, accessible soul of a writer whose honesty and compassion for both audiences and his characters is at the heart of all his work, including “The Soldier Dreams.”
Lines that might seem glib, even trite, in the hands of a lesser writer come across as achingly profound when dropped into the middle of a MacIvor play:”Choice,” says one character, “is the pleasant telephone manner of chance. And who chooses chance?” At another point, as a small group of friends, relatives and a lover work out their own bedside fear of death while waiting for the central character, David, to die of AIDS, MacIvor observes that this is what it’s like “to be living between what was and will be.”
Between what was — the world before AIDS — and what will be — the next millennium — is a chasm as large as the empty space that designer Jan Komarek has created to separate the audience from the tiny, claustrophobic bedroom of David, the dying man. Barely big enough for an old iron bed, the room is scrunched up against the back of the theater, its walls alternately lit to look like delicate rice paper, against which ethereal shadows flit, and ugly brown wrapping paper signifying a life force gone dry and wrinkled.
By contrast, the vast floor outside the room is divided into 36 colored squares that go on and off like lights on a dance floor. As the characters step out of their naturalistic frame at the back and come forward, the style of the play shifts to a series of monologues and orchestrated speeches. The actors must wend their way seamlessly from one playing area and acting style to the next.
When flaws appear it is often in these switches, which as yet are mechanisms for moving the script forward, rather than organic shifts within the story. But on the whole the nine actors, including well-known faces on the small-theater circuit, are in tune with one another and form a cohesive ensemble.
The play jumps among three time frames: the death watch, a long-ago chance encounter between David and a young man at an airport, and the memorial service, where the characters attempt awkwardly and often humorously to eulogize the man they have just lost. The funeral speeches are choreographed, both verbally and physically.
Just outside the main action, high on platforms above the sickroom, is the pre-AIDS David, juxtaposed against the David whose fractured dying words are misunderstood by those closest to him. “Matchbook” and “Ottawa” he repeats over and over, while his brittle sister rattles on about the matchbook covers at her Ottawa wedding. In flashback scenes on the platforms we see David and the young man meet, share a taxi and spend one tentative, hope-filled night together. The young man (who is never named) writes his phone number on a matchbook, and the encounter takes place in Ottawa.
It never becomes clear whether this is how David contracted AIDS or even whether the encounter really happened; it may be a reaction to the selfishness of his care givers, who turn David’s death into their own personal trauma. In truth, either interpretation resonates.
The issue at the heart of “The Soldier Dreams” is never the disease itself, but rather the fear of death that haunts us all. At the end of what could be a very bleak evening, MacIvor leaves a door open, suggesting that this next journey beyond our world might well be one worth taking.
For the most part it’s a satisfying trip. But while the overlying structure is razor-sharp, some of the characters could use fleshing out. Just as MacIvor juxtaposes styles, he now needs to contrast some of the broader brush strokes with more detail. And the ending still lacks definition, as if he knows where he’s going but not yet quite how to get there.
As the play moves around the country in future productions, these problems will most likely be addressed. MacIvor sees “The Soldier Dreams” as a work in progress that will evolve over time. This Toronto premiere makes the point that such time and care are worth investing.