Melanie Reich and Patrick Dodd in VIVA. Credit: Javier Sotres

At Havana Theatre until October 22, 2017

Posted October 17, 2017

Aenigma Theatre and Bright Young Theatre prove once again: you don’t need a fancy set and expensive costumes to make theatre. All you really need is a good story, well-told. Local playwright Scott Button and actors Melanie Reich and Patrick Dodd deliver – chills and all – in this world première.

Two wooden chairs, a couple of rope lights and we imagine the inside of a plane ready for takeoff with Alice (“I am a calm, centred person. I am a calm, centred person.”), quelling her fears with tranquilizers, and Graeme (“I’m just high. I’m just high.”), ridiculously stoned and already on a good trip even before the wheels are up. They’re bound for Vegas; he for a good time, she to pick up a mysterious package. They don’t know each other although we know their stories will intertwine by the end of the story.

Like peeling gauze bandages off a wound, both Alice and Graeme reveal sorrow in their lives. Alice’s brother is dying and in need of an organ transplant. Graeme’s sixteen-year-old sister disappeared when he was ten; he feels guilty for not preventing her from leaving. And now Alice and Graeme find themselves separately in Sin City.

Melanie Reich as Alice in VIVA. Credit: Javier Sotres

Alice is trying to rendezvous with someone carrying a small orange cooler. Fearing she is dealing with gangsters, she has taken an alias and calls herself Sarah. Graeme, taking a promo card from the hordes of pimps on the street, suddenly recognizes his sister as one of the girls. His lost sister’s name was Sarah and maybe he has a second chance to save her.

The story proceeds through interior monologues, switching quickly back and forth between Alice and Graeme, sometimes with identical lines overlapping. Periodically, Reich and Dodd play supporting characters. And eventually they are talking to each other.

Interestingly, both characters enter dark, scary tunnels or passageways at some point; it feels Freudian and just when you begin to wonder if VIVA has gone symbolic and the playwright has been having us on, the plot goes CSI. Gunshot. The orange cooler. A chase.

Patrick Dodd as Graeme in VIVA. Credit: Javier Sotres

It is, somehow, disappointing to find ourselves in that familiar, clichéd territory after such an intriguing beginning. But the story has to go somewhere and where it goes is not at all clichéd. A little bewildering,  probably not credible, but unforeseen and definitely redemptive.

In the tiny Havana space, both actors allow themselves to be completely open and vulnerable. Reich’s Alice is prim, shy and when nervous – which is most of the time – she clutches the crucifix around her neck. Clearly Alice is as far out of her comfort zone as it’s possible to be. Impulsive, Graeme seems constantly surprised by how things are turning out and Dodd has his character always slightly rushing into things.

Director Tanya Mathivanan keeps what could be static – monologues, two characters, two chairs – lively. Except for on the plane, the performers are never still and the story really moves forward quickly.

Playwright Button said in an interview that he almost never was surprised in the theatre – and he wanted to be. His language is poetic, the situation intriguing and there certainly are surprises. VIVA begins as two dramatic interior monologues but ends more like an episode in a crime show. However, a closet CSI, Motive and Criminal Minds fan, I was always engaged and, at times, even on the edge of my seat.