By: Ren Walt
Other than to say it’s good – which it is – K-W Little Theatre’s production of The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine, directed by Colleen Matthews, is difficult to describe in a word.
It cuts across a number of genres, from a kind of Rockwellian satire to dark comedy to just plain dark. That said, there is a unifying heat motif running throughout the play, steaming up the stage set, the characters mood swings, and upping the play’s rating to an “M”. It all works perfectly to make audiences sweat more than a whistleblower in England. So I suppose one could (with Paris Hilton’s legal consent) summarize the play as “hot.”
Binh Ngo and Rylee Windover breezed through the title roles of Ernest and Ernestine, a young yet old-fashioned, newlywed couple who, in the play’s opening montage, are shown to be so sweet on each other it’s embarrassing: “I love you because you make me feel like Juliette . . . . I love youbecause you make me want to marry you”. Get a room. It is hard to take the schmaltz seriously, but that makes it easier, right from the outset, for audiences to see seams in the relationship that are just begging to get unstitched.
The first sutures are popped before the happy couple has even finished unpacking at their new basement apartment. There isn’t enough space for all of their stuff, they have different taste in kitsch, and the furnace is on the fritz, cranking out enough heat to turn the place into a raging inferno. Nearly a character in its own right, the furnace keeps a fiery grin fixed on the audience throughout the play.
In Matthews’ rendering of the play, it is more than just the furnace that brings the set to life. Technical director David Altos’ design includes scattered exits and entrances to keep the characters’ movements frantic, along with a set of drop-down stairs that work in tandem with the furnace to augment the darkening mood. The play comes to a point where it’s tense even to have the two characters in the same room, and there are moments in which the arrival home of either Ernest or Ernestine is articulated with the slow descent of the stairs, which then hit the floor with a sound like the word “doom.”
For the first half of the play, comedy, served up in all forms, keeps the sense of looming damnation on a leash. Ngo, in an interview on 100.3 Sound FM, said that Matthews worked hard with himself and Windover to build solid characters. Time well spent, since it is often our knowledge of these characters quirks that makes us laugh. Ngo’s delivery of Ernest’s subtle responses to his wife’s housekeeping disorder will have people chuckling for a good while after the curtain falls. Windover’s interactions with the audience are brilliantly uncomfortable. Both actors get to showcase their talents for character-based comedy, improv, and clowning, and together they totally nail the most talked-about scene of the play with their deadpan delivery of what I’ll call cluster “F” bombs.
K-W Little Theatre is aptly named, but the space works well with this production whose thematic closeness is made all the more claustrophobic for audiences with its lack of a fourth wall. We are all crammed into Ernest and Ernestine’s sweaty little apartment with them, not just witnessing their marital problems but perhaps contributing to them just by being there. Anyone who has ever been forced to say, “maybe I should go” to bickering married friends can probably relate.
Matthews chose The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine as her directorial debut because it is her favourite Canadian play. It is also a piece that requires complex management of things like developing rich characters, and controlling a shifting tone. With challenges like this, it seems a bold first choice. None of these hurdles were apparent on the night I saw the play. Matthews obviously had a clear vision for the production, which she cultivated thoughtfully and executed to great effect.
The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine, written by Leah Cherniak, Robert Morgan and Martha Ross premiered in 1986, and has since been produced all over the world. Morgan is an award-winning playwright and director and founding artistic director of the Children’s Peace Theatre, which is dedicated to spreading the message of peace. Cherniak and Ross founded the Theatre Columbus in Toronto, which is dedicated to producing new clown-based plays and reworked classics.
The Kitchener Waterloo Little Theatre, as it says on their website is “dedicated to providing theatre in the community”. Why do we need theatre in the community you ask? We need it so we can stop and take look at ourselves and/or laugh or cry or wince accordingly.