What: 7 Stories
Where: Phoenix Theatre, University of Victoria
When: March 14 through March 23
Tickets: $26 ($21 for seniors, $16 for students) in person or by phone from the Phoenix Theatre box office (250-721-8000)
The stage is set — literally — for the Phoenix Theatre’s production of 7 Stories, the acclaimed existential comedy from playwright Morris Panych.
And it’s big. Very big, in fact.
The sheer scale of the set, which stands at a whopping 23 feet and is made to resemble the face of an apartment building, complete with windows and sills, will make for a must-see run at the University of Victoria’s Phoenix Theatre, starting today.
The set was made using construction plans based on blueprints by Ken MacDonald, the original set designer.
“I can’t see this play being done any other way,” said University of Victoria theatre professor Fran Gebhard, who is directing.
“The set is gorgeous, and is without a doubt one of the most interesting I have ever seen. I’ve seen photographs of other people doing the play against another set, and it just doesn’t seem right to me at all. I think audiences will come out singing about the set by the end of this play.”
Bursting with a colour palette inspired by Belgian artist René Magritte, with snowy-white clouds and piercing blue sky as a backdrop, the set gives the audience the impression of floating. That was an important feeling to communicate, given what transpires.
7 Stories is about a man contemplating suicide who inches his way across the ledge of a building.
The play works on several levels, as seven residents of the apartment offer seven storylines, with the central character positioned on a ledge seven storeys in the air. During this period of reflection, the character known simply as “the man” comes to new realizations about his life. “Although it’s a dark comedy, it really is very funny,” Gebhard said. “It’s a surrealist play in a surrealist world.”
The scenes are short, and the play’s 90-minute run time, with no intermission, keeps the action brisk. It’s a black comedy, but 7 Stories benefits from the inclusion of the character Lillian Wright, a “seer” who is 100 years old. She adds much-needed humanity to the play, which is not nearly as harrowing as its premise would suggest, according to Gebhard.
“It has quite a hopeful, happy, uplifting ending. She is comforting in a way. She helps the man see the world in a different way, and changes his mind about jumping.”
Tackling a play with mental health at its comedic core has grown increasingly difficult. When the play was written 30 years ago, dialogue about mental illness was vastly different from today, which gave Panych — a 1994 Governor General’s Award for Drama winner for The Ends of the Earth — ample room to manoeuvre.
Today, there is more sensitivity around the subject, which presented problems of tone, Gebhard said. Nonetheless, 7 Stories is clearly a comedy. “You’ll know within four lines that you’re looking at a comedy. Because you know so early on that the play is a comedy, I’m hoping that is doesn’t resonate in a sad or morose way with people. Of course, there is a slightly different climate now. The world is not as rosy as it was 30 years ago, in many ways.”
Gebhard did not see the play during its initial 1989 run or since, but she was there at the time of its writing. The Winnipeg native was friends with set designer MacDonald and Panych, and the trio collaborated on several productions in Vancouver at creative hubs The Cultch and the Arts Club Theatre Company.
Gebhard has a MacDonald painting on a wall at her home, but has never had the chance to bring 7 Stories to life, despite using it as a teaching tool in her classes at UVic.
“I read it at the time, and really liked the play,” she said. “I’ve waited 30 years to direct it.”