A 'Roof' with a Powerful View



By Dave Carley

At the Orpheum Theater, Foxbo

Sept. 16 to Oct. 4

It's a typical scene: a young couple enters their new home for the first time, and although it may not be the Barbie dream house, they're willing to make some concessions. It all seems familiar...until the pregnant bride suddenly removes her stomach and throws it on the floor. "You don't have to wear this every day! I do!" she yells. Frustrated Lamaze students? Fugitives from the law? Nope. They're actors, hired by their Toronto corporate employer Mr. Mulgrave to give a rather unusual performance--an improvised reenactment of his own life, which the latter watches from his office building through binoculars with frightening intensity.


Although it may sound like something out of the Twilight Zone, "The Man without Memories" is actually a skit from A View from the Roof, performed at Foxbo's Orpheum Theatre, a re-modeled silent movie house from the 1920s. Written by Dave Carley, the production is based on a collection of short stories by Polish-born writer Helen Weinzweig. Carley's dramatization cleverly creates ambiguity that is later resolved through the unfolding of events.

At first glance, the first three skits of the play appear to have no connection. Following Mr. Mulgrave's orders to "take two," the audience is thrust forward in time to 1985, where a middle-aged couple is enjoying the view from their hotel balcony in San Juan. This next skit, "A View from the Roof," revolves around Betty, an emotionally frustrated Jewish wife who is duped by a suave Puerto Rican artist. The third skit, entitled "My Mother's Luck," is essentially a long monologue spoken by a Jewish mother to her daughter Hannah, who is preparing to live with her wealthy father in pre-WWII Germany.

The opening of the second act signals that it is 1938, and the Nazis have already declared Jews to be "subjects" in the new Aryan kingdom. A 26-year old Hannah is escaping from Austria to Venice with a young Jewish baker named Daniel. As the story progresses, the audience comes to the realization that Hannah and Daniel are the two actors performing Mr. Mulgrave's biography, and that Daniel in particular is none other than the employer himself. Filled with grief and remorse, Mulgrave reflects back on his decision to flee to Palestine, leaving behind Hannah and their unborn child Betty.

"If you can't remember, you can't have memories," he says shakily. "And if you can't ever remember, then you can't ever be hurt."

The overall plot of the play is crammed with unexpected twists and a difficult juxtaposition of scenes. The question is whether or not the cast can sustain the audience's interest long enough to reveal the characters' ultimate connection. Although Karen Murphy puts in considerable effort as Mulgrave's somewhat off-balance secretary, she appears more comfortable in her portrayal of the various odd roles her employer casts her in as part of his live-action biography.

Cody Nickell demonstrates a wonderful versatility in his roles as both the lingeringly pubescent Daniel and the cleverly seductive artist Mauricio. Anne Bates, her mannerisms faintly resembling those of Claire Danes, is charming in her portrayal of Hannah, and is particularly vibrant in the emotionally charged final scene, "The Bridge of Sighs."

Particularly notable, however, is Lizbeth Mackay's striking solo performance in "My Mother's Luck." Despite her unusually lengthy speech, Mackay captures the audience's attention and leaves one wishing her character appeared more frequently throughout the performance. She sits comfortably in her rocking chair with Hannah rubbing her sore feet, speaking in a thick German accent of how she felt "like a sack of potatoes" next to her husband's bob-haired, cigarette-smoking female friends of the 1920s.

With such a scene as this, where one character does virtually all the talking, it is an all-or-nothing venture. Mackay must be convincing and endearing, conversational yet aptly reflecting all the emotions conjured by her racing memory. Each thought must appear fresh as if it had just been devised, rather than recited from a lengthy monologue. It is a difficult task, but Mackay succeeds brilliantly.

With such a wide range of eras as is seen in A View from the Roof, the design must be simple and transitory, yet effective. With contrasting music, period costumes, a few set alterations and a video screen to display various backdrops, the transformation from pre-WWII Venice to 1980s Toronto is complete. Simple set/prop pieces are also used in the production to display character. One of the most effective examples is a swivel chair used by Mulgrave's constantly bordering-on-hysterical secretary as she wheels about from one end of the stage to the other, reporting her employer's strange activities to the chairman of the board.

It's not Schindler's List. There are no barbed-wire fences, no gas chambers, no emaciated and hollow-eyed figures to tear at your soul and disturb your sleep with nightmares. There are simply the before and after, leaving the audience the job of filling in the gaps.

Yet along with this vision comes a kind of understanding which is possible without statistics, without the gruesome tales of the concentration camps. Each character is portrayed as a human being confronted with painful memories of the past and the uncertainty of the future. In A View from the Roof, the simple sight of the star of David and the abrasive shouts of Nazi soldiers are enough to leave audience members with a powerful impression that they will never forget.