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The Great Divorce

Kirsty Provan, Holly Pillsbury, Kyla Ferrier, Stephanie Elgersma and others. Photo by Ron Reed

The Great Divorce
adapted by George Drance and Magis Theatre
from the novel by C.S. Lewis
Directed by Kyle Rideout
Pacific Theatre
May 20 - June 18, 2011

Vancouver, BC:  On my last visit to New York one of the plays I saw was The Screwtape Letters, adapted by Jeffrey Fiske from the epistolary novel by C.S. Lewis.  The letters are written by Screwtape, Satan's chief demon to his hapless nephew, Wormwood, advising him on how best to tempt humans to sin. I was enthralled by  the charismatic and dominating Screwtape, amazed at the sinuous contortions of his demonic assistant Toadpipe, and the whole experience was devilishly wicked, funny and at all times entertaining.

The Great Divorce, originally published in serial form in a religious journal, was a complementary novella to Lewis's Screwtape Letters. I was therefore quite excited to see that Pacific Theatre was staging an adaptation of this book and hoped for a similarly entertaining show.

We had supper at The Marquis Grill on Granville Street, and then walked a couple of blocks to Pacific Theatre. I was encouraged to see an almost full house, despite the fact that the Canucks were playing that night.

Evan Frayne as CS Lewis. Photo by Emily CooperIn this play, the narrator C.S. Lewis (Evan Frayne), for no apparent reason, finds himself in a a  grey featureless city - Hell. He is drawn into a bus queue behind a motley group of people. The bus arrives and they set off on an excursion to a beautiful countryside which turns out to be the foothills of Heaven. There he is met by his guide, George MacDonald (Jeff McMahan), a Scottish Christian minister and fantasy writer whom the real-life Lewis regarded as a mentor.

Evan Frayne and Masae Day. Photo by Ron Reed.It turns out that his fellow bus passengers are ghosts, who have the choice of climbing upwards through the mountains to Heaven, or returning to Hell. Each ghost narrates his or her story and we begin to understand what were their "sins" and the excuses they make to themselves as justification for not repenting, and therefore returning to Hell.

The version of the play at Pacific Theatre was adapted from the novella and produced in 2007 by Drance and the Magis Theatre company in New York. It was the first production of this new company formed of Columbia University MFA Acting graduates.

The strong ensemble focus is evident  from the beginning of the play, in the scenes before and during the bus ride. Unfortunately from this promising beginning the play descended into a mind-numbing recital of stories by characters that were neither interesting nor empathetic. The large cast, which as well as Frayne and MacMahan included Brandon Bate, Matt Beairsto, Julie Casselman, Masae Day,Stephanie Elgersma, Kyla Ferrier, Lyndon Johnson, Phil Miguel, Holly Pillsbury, Kirsty Provan and Sarah Ruth, played multiple characters including the spirits of heaven. The young actors put a lot of energy into their performances but with a script that is "tell rather than show" and a storyline that has no drama to capture one's interest - well, enough said.

The staging was interesting. I liked the way Rideout and scenographic designer Laughlin Johnston represented  Hell  by dirty crumbled dust cloths on the floor and ceiling which fell away to reveal a cube of reflective sides.  Florence Barrett's costumes were striking particularly the gowns worn by some of the women as pictured.

Perhaps I came into this performance with expectations that were too high. If you have a particular interest in sin and redemption and you believe in heaven and Hell maybe you will enjoy this play more than I did. On the night I saw it there was one audience member who laughed loudly at many points in the play. I was glad she enjoyed it. Most times I did not get the joke.