There’s a lot of powerful writing in Scott Button’s new play VIVA. That’s the most important thing to know. There are also lapses of taste, which undermine the strengths.
In VIVA, Button overlaps two narratives. At the outset, Alice and Graeme, who don’t know one another, are on the same plane to Las Vegas. Button does an excellent job of controlling the revelation of information, so I won’t mess with that other than to say that the stories involve Graeme’s search for a lost family member and Alice’s attempt to save her terminally ill brother by illegal means.
By having his characters narrate the action as they live it, Button liberates himself as a playwright: he can follow the story wherever it leads him and create as many characters as he likes. Graeme describes a scene in the lobby of the Bellagio Hotel, for instance: he sees a couple of guys dressed as gladiators, then “Cleopatra walks up and sits down beside them.” Because they are in soliloquy mode, Alice and Graeme are also able to comment both on their own internal states and on the behaviour of others: Alice has had sex with a guy in the airplane toilet, and he has noticed blood. “’It’s probably just your size.’ He seems satisfied with that response.”
Graeme’s story hits home. When we meet him on the plane, he is stoned out of his mind, which is hilarious. Peeking out the window, Graeme catches his first glimpse of Sin City below, “And, oh, it’s like a face.” He decides to drop the shade. Then that absurdity takes a twist and goes down the path of memory, heartbreak, and potential redemption. In the most memorable scene in the script, Graeme describes what it was like going into a cave at night with his big sister when he was ten and she was 16.
To me, it feels like that scene is a metaphor for this part of Button’s artistic process: the story of Graeme and his sister is dark, it’s also intimate, and it’s so essential, so impactful on an emotional level, that, to create it, it seems to me that Button must have trusted himself to venture into the darkness and follow his instincts—to go to that mysterious, intuitive place where the best writing comes from.
There are strengths in Alice’s story, too, including wit. Describing another character, Alice says, “If a person could resemble a harpoon, it is this woman.” But there’s a level on which Alice’s story feels cheesy—like an episode of a cop show on TV. Although there’s a potentially rich emotional starting point in Alice’s relationship with her brother, too much of the plot is externalized and artificially inflated, peopled by cliché bad guys, including a man with a face like death. When Alice’s narrative hit a scene of gun violence that felt almost commercial in its demand for attention, it really started to unravel for me.
Button also allows clichés to pollute his writing. Alice imagines her sick brother well again—and able to enjoy the sun on his face. There are so many more original ways to evoke sensual presence.
That said, there’s plenty more to like in this production of VIVA, which is ably directed by Tanya Mathivanan. Melanie Reich’s work as Alice is solid—understated and honest. And Patrick Dodd rocks as Graeme. Dodd’s comic passages are unabashed but always authentic. And his performance is persuasively responsive: he always seems to be discovering the moment as he encounters it and discovering the language as he speaks it. As a result, every word is rich without feeling forced. Emotionally, Dodd is naked, even when he’s playing Graeme’s ten-year-old self, which is a large part of what makes that material so touching.
Working on a budget of about a buck fifty, lighting designer Chengyan Boon* triumphs—using LED light ropes. Blue and red light ropes skitter across the back wall of the tiny Havana space, evoking in shorthand Las Vegas neon. There are a couple of strips of white lights that create a corridor down the centre of the playing area, separating it into distinct spaces and conjuring the idea of a landing script. And, in the best cue of the night, when Graeme looks out of the plane and sees Las Vegas below, mauve lights glow all around the periphery, gaudy and alluring. Boon’s design is a mini masterpiece.
Watching Button develop as a playwright, I feel like he’s on the cusp of creating something really substantial. The best of VIVA is structurally adventuresome and emotionally true. If he keeps going that direction, Button could soon hit his mother lode.
VIVA By Scott Button. Directed by Tanya Mathivanan. Co-produced by Aenigma Theatre and Bright Young Theatre at the Havana Theatre on Saturday, October 14. Continues until October 22.
*This review has been corrected to give proper credit to lighting designer Chengayn Boon. The original version of this review credited set designer Sarah Melo with the use of the light ropes, but Melo’s contribution to that aspect of the production was limited to her assistance with the shaping of the light ropes on the rear wall.
Get your tickets here.