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Grey Gardens
The two Edies reflect on their opposing lifestyles. (Luca Ciklovan / McGill Tribune)

Beyond the lens: Grey Gardens places audience within 1975 documentary

a/Arts & Entertainment/Theatre by

Tuesday Night Café ’s (TNC) inaugural play of the season, Grey Gardens, concerns a little-known facet of American history. In the aftermath of the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy in 1963, it is easy to forget the role that his wife—first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—came to play for the American public. Easier yet is forgetting the bizarrely tragic tale of Jacqueline’s aunt Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (Big Edie), and cousin Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie) who were both brought to the cultural fore by Albert and David Maysles’ 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. The film highlights the social aftermath of the Beales’ transition from fame to famine, and portrays these once wealthy New York socialites living in the now-dilapidated estate of Grey Gardens, facing conditions of ever increasing squalor and isolation. This central tension is augmented by the direct filming style of the Maysles brothers. Directed by Grace Jackson, TNC’s version successfully sets out to adapt this directness from the screen to the stage, and doesn’t lose out on any post-aristocratic insanity in doing so.

Grey Gardens brilliantly puts the audience into the position of the Maysles brothers as the two are brought face to face with the good, bad, and ugly, found of manor. Jackson uses most of the same lines from the original documentary, mixes in actual scenes from the film via projector, and follows the same general narrative of the documentary. In this way Jackson draws a clear line from her production to the source material, and cements her work as a theatrical adaptation. In setting up the same conditions found in the film, however, the audience is more directly in contact with the awkwardness, sadness, and occasional mirth captured in the film. Having the two Edies’ engage in direct eye contact with the audience, actually feeding the audience with what little scraps of food they had, and posing for pictures that audiences are prone to take, successfully blur the line between spectator and performer in a powerful way that the medium of film simply cannot recreate.

Augmenting this solid directing was equally strong acting. Big Edie‘s (Rachel Stone) culturally aloof and determined persona was portrayed effectivelye by Stone—she rarely acknowledged the audience nor camera, and always shrilly defending her life choices with big vocal crescendos. Stone is noticeably contrasted by Little Edie (Connor Spencer) who had almost constant energetic interaction with the audience. Stone and Spencer—although their accents faltered at times—worked off of each other’s opposing energies brilliantly. The result was an unnerving mixture of intense fighting and brief moments of happiness that made the duo appear simultaneously insane and somehow approachable and charismatic. Jerry (Oren Lefkowitz), the handyman of the estate, is portrayed in a monotonous, ogling manner, and this only adds to the eeriness of the scenes.

The Grey Gardens estate itself, which is central to the show, was designed and acted on in a way that conveyed the squalor that defined it. TNC Stage Managers Holly Hilts and Karlo Trost arranged the stage as a clutter of random objects tossed about, which constantly impeded actors’ movements. As such, the Beales’ poverty is highlighted despite the fact that a large pallet of bright colours sometimes gave off the impression of wealth. When coupled with the long, backstage routes the actors were directed to take to move about the house, it spectacularly demonstrated the inconvenience that the manor itself posed.

By successfully exploring the tragic story of the Beales while offering a powerful translation of one medium into another, TNC’s production of Grey Gardens proved itself as a strong piece and an excellent opener.

Grey Gardens runs at TNC, (Morrice Hall, 3485 Rue McTavish) Wednesday to Saturday, October 21-24.  Performances begin at 8 p.m., with doors at 7:45. Tickets are $6 for students and seniors and $10 

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