The Unfortunate Ruth
Written and performed by Tara Travis at Uno Fest
Metro Studio, Victoria, BC
May 18 – 20, 2016
By Mark Leiren-Young
Performed by John Huston at Uno Fest
May 19 – 20, 2016
Victoria’s 19th Uno Fest, an annual event produced by Intrepid Theatre, is off to a terrific start to 10 days of performance of 14 solo shows.
The running gag in Tara Travis’s The Unfortunate Ruth, is “I have a hunch,” a line delivered by the Ruth, a buck-toothed hunchback receptionist in a white coat. Ruthie, her Doppelganger, is also a receptionist – in a clinic that performs ultrasounds on pregnant women.
I have to admit that I didn’t quite get this show, which grew out of Travis’s fascination with “identical twins, parallel universes, the work of Mind of a Snail and a particularly rare medical condition called fetus in fetu.”
Buck-toothed Ruth has a fetus in her hump that makes its presence known by gripping Ruth’s heart with its legs. Ruth calls the fetus Cordelia, Cordy for short. The other Ruth, known as Ruthie (a quick on-stage costume change takes place), has a fetus growing in her abdominal cavity. She could see it herself with her ultrasound wand, if she cared to. Then, just to complicate things, there are talking cartoon fetuses projected on a screen behind each Ruth. In one video scene, one fetus eats the other. There’s a confusion of names: who knows where the fetus Gertrude fits in? what about this unicorn and the ashes in the urns? And which of the Ruths is the one who survives surgical removal?
Travis, a Vancouver performer who brought this show to the Vancouver Fringe in 2014, gets off some good lines and disports herself with aplomb, puzzling as her show remains to this viewer.
Victoria playwright Mark Leiren-Young’s Shylock is the stuff of great solo performances and John Huston is the actor to do it justice. Essentially a lecture, this Shylock soliloquy is a literal undressing as an actor bares his heart before his post-show audience. Huston is John Davies, an actor trained in the classical tradition (think the Stratford Festival as run by an Englishman), and currently embodying a villainous, obnoxious Shylock in a festival’s controversial production of Merchant of Venice. He enters — swarthy, dirty, costumed with a hawk-like nose, grey page-boy wig and full Elizabethan accoutrement — and delivers his most memorable soliloquy. “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? . . If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute . . .”
This Shylock is either a victim of anti-Semitism, or a reason for inciting it. In his one-sided “talk-back” address to the audience, Davies, Jewish himself, answers his critics (“you must be a Jew-hating Jew,”) and makes a plea for returning to theatre that is about art and not about pandering to patrons or protecting the public from things they’d rather not acknowledge. Davies believes Shakespeare was an anti-Semite; Shylock is his villain, not someone with whom we need to sympathize.
As he’s raising issue after issue, eloquently displaying the power of “dangerous words,” the actor is wiping off his make-up, removing his wig, working down to his leggings and stocking-feet. Huston holds our attention every minute. (He performs an adaptation of The Screwtape Letters at Christ Church Cathedral, Saturday, May 21 at 7:30 pm.)