The Big Smoke
a story of the summer that I died
Performed by Amy Nostbakken
Co-written by Amy Nostbakken and Nir Paldi
Directed by Nir Paldi
Theatre Ad Infinitum in association with Why Not Theatre
Factory Theatre Studio, Toronto
February 21 to March 4, 2012
Briefly Reviewed for Evidanceradio.com by Beverley Daurio
Dressed in a shoulder-baring, expensive pink party dress—an impractical garment that shouts poise, and for attention—but that is, perhaps, utterly unrealistic against the weathers of real experience—Amy Nostbakken takes the audience for The Big Smoke on a heart-wrenching, dynamic trip through the emotional disintegration of a highly talented, neurotic young artist.
After winning an important art competition that takes her to London, England, a free studio, financial support and exposure to the heights of the English cultural elite, she is at first elated, and eventually paralyzed and unable to work. Her relationships with others, parties, her attempts to evade the propulsions and encouragement of the competition mistress and her fellow artists, are conveyed in telling detail, in powerful anecdotes, which, in this elegant presentation of physical theatre, are accompanied by often extremely moving and expressive movement—whether it is the eventual removal of hre dress (leaving her in a greyish slip and in an even more vulnerable state) or a tumble to the floor in desperation after a futile return to the “safety” of her mother’s house.
The set is simple: bare floor, a mic and microphone stand, where Nostbakken's individuality, her loneliness, and her energy illuminate the room. The subtle lighting moves with her perfectly, and at times brightens, isolates, or dims in sympathy with Nostbakken's character.
Painting pictures with words—conceptually re-creating her artist-character’s skill in a different form—is enhanced by the decision of the play’s creators for Nostbakken to sing all of the dialogue. Startling, not always pretty, and performed flawlessly in Nostbakken’s strong, gorgeous voice, this singing further underpins the fragility of her character’s sanity as she slides away into fatal depression. Moments—from her near rape by an acquaintance, to attempting to work—are shiveringly paced. The direction is tight and creates suspense, interest, and empathy.
The narrative arc itself perhaps dips too sharply toward predictability. The ending, however logical in a larger context (the program thanks the influence of successfully suicidal authors, including Sylvia Plath and Virgina Woolf), leaves the audience a bit deflated. A happy ending would have been untrue to the flaying honesty of the play and its performance. But it is unclear if the helplessness the audience feels as the lights are extinguished is truly what the play’s creators intended for us.
I highly recommend seeing this play and anything produced/performed individually or together by the creative team of Nir Paldi and Amy Nostbakken.