Punctuate! goes big with The Suburban Motel Series

Neil Kuefler in the Suburban Motel Series. Photo credit Mat Simpson.

Neil Kuefler in the Suburban Motel Series. Photo credit Mat Simpson.

It’s no secret that rehearsal and performance space in Edmonton is difficult to find, and one of the ways Punctuate! Theatre is making the most of the situation is by presenting all six of the plays in George F. Walker‘s Suburban Motel series not over the course of a season as they were first presented, but all together between April 29 – May 11.

Punctuate!’s Artistic Director Liz Hobbs says, “We lost the space we were in before… We can’t afford to rent to space and it’s hard to find space in this city more than once, so we thought maybe we’ll do a smaller project but that sucks because we’ve worked with so many artists over the years… so what can we do? And Sheiny Satanove, our Artistic Producer was like, ‘We should do all six of the Surban Motel plays.’ And I said that’s a terrible idea, we’re not doing that and then wrote it off, but a few months later I read all of them again and I was like, ‘Damn these are good plays.’ But still it was like, there’s 26 characters, this is madness. I just didn’t think it would be possible and then sleeplessly at 2:00 a.m. I went through all the plays and wrote out diagrams and tested out rehearsal processes to figure out whether we could actually do it… I basically drew diagrams and created charts for three hours in the middle of the night and was like, ‘It’s possible!’ ”

One of Punctuate!’s Artistic Associates, Andréa Jorawsky adds, “Let’s go big or go home!”

So, that’s what Punctuate! is doing – from rehearsing in a former psychiatric hospital to taking on the logistics of six plays, 15 actors, three directors, a production team of 27, and 30 performances in 13 days – it’s indie theatre at its most innovative.

A collection of six dark comedies, George F. Walker’s plays all stand on their own and can be performed individually, but Liz says what ties them all together beyond taking place in the same hotel room is, “Each character is in a transitory place and they’re fighting to get some place else… What ties the plays together is the idea of struggle for survival – they’re all struggling to survive in whatever way they need to. [The plays are] very funny, but they’re also very dark. The cool thing about them is that most theatre doesn’t put these people on stage. These types of characters, these types of humans, if they’re in a play they’re a secondary character. They’re the obstacle character as opposed to who you’re actually rooting for.”

George F. Walker’s characters themselves are written realistically, but Liz Hobbs says presenting all six of the Suburban Motel plays together adds the context that makes it, “difficult to dismiss any of the characters as, ‘Oh, they made their own choices so now they’re screwed.’ Because they’re all so different from each other, but they’ve all ended up in the same place: at the bottom of the barrel, fighting for respect and power and money and basically just trying to find some place better.”

Elliot James and Andréa Jorawsky in the Suburban Motel Series. Photo credit Mat Simpson.

Elliot James and Andréa Jorawsky in the Suburban Motel Series. Photo credit Mat Simpson.

“To me, I think I want all of the plays to be based in being true to these characters and being honest and not playing any of them as stereotypes or as comedies. I want people to laugh, obviously because they’re funny, but I also want them to get punched in the heart a little bit by certain characters… I would love an audience member to be moved and relate in some way to somebody they might not relate to in everyday life.”

Liz gives us an overview of each of the six plays in the series:

  • “Problem Child is about a young couple – RJ and Denise – who have lost their baby through child welfare services and are trying to change their lives to get her back. They’re being met by a social worker who is against that happening because she doesn’t recognize what they’ve done making them to be fit parents, even though they’re making a huge effort, but she doesn’t see it that way because her job is to protect the baby and of course they want the baby. And then Phillie, the motel manager, gets dragged in to help and then they think they kill the social worker and they didn’t but that makes everything so much worse! It’s this really unfortunate series of events, but they keep struggling to obtain the baby.”
  • Adult Entertainment is interesting because it’s upper class professionals – two detectives and a lawyer and the wife of one of the detectives as well. It’s the first time you see the characters Max and Donny, the two detectives. They’re struggling with middle age and apathy and hating their professions that they went into for good reasons… but ultimately they don’t care anymore and they’re trying to reconcile their own self-loathing with their jobs. One of them is dealing with an alcohol addiction and they’ve been through the shit, so it’s them trying ultimately to make things right in a way.” Andréa adds, “They go about it in the worst way possible. That’s a judgement, sorry. But they try and arrest this kid and it goes sideways. And Donny’s wife shows up and she won’t leave, and they’re trying to reconcile their marriage and it’s funny but it’s dark.”
  • Liz continues, “Featuring Loretta is about a girl whose husband has died and she’s left with no money. She’s pregnant and she is trying to make money. That’s what she says she wants, but what she actually wants is to make her own choices and to gain some freedom from all of these people who are trying to control her life. She’s met with these men who are trying to help her but ultimately end up trying to control her: one wants to marry her, one wants to make a porn movie with her. Featuring Loretta is her struggle of trying to navigate her way through the world and take charge of her life without giving up on her own values. It’s very, very funny. It’s one of the most ridiculous.” Andréa adds, “Loretta becomes friends with a young Russian woman whose ex-KGB kingpin father now owns the motel, and so they develop a bit of this strange friendship and they both kind of are navigating some pretty heavy stuff on their own but together.”
  • Andréa says, “Criminal Genius is about a father-son duo who live and work in the world of crime. They’re low-level criminals, but they’re not very smart and they get hired to do this job and they fuck it up.” Liz adds in, “The reason they fuck it up is they have this thing where they can’t hurt anyone.” Andréa continues, “And so the woman who contracts them out, Shirl the Pearl, comes in and shows them who’s boss but part of the plan that got derailed involves kidnapping someone they shouldn’t have kidnapped and the kidnapper kind of takes over the situation and it’s just almost farcical.” Liz explains, “The only thing any of them want is some respect in the world. They’re all fighting for someone to recognize them as a valuable human being. And nobody does. So it ends up in this perpetual nightmare of cyclical argument of trying to blame someone else or prove that they’re worthwhile.”
  • Liz says, The End of Civilization is mostly about Lily and Henry who are a middle class couple with two kids and Henry has lost his job and he’s been out of work for a long time so they’ve gone to the city and they’re living in the motel and he’s trying to find work and he’s not finding work and not finding work and Lily is left by herself in this motel room. Then murders start happening and bombs are set off and all of the evidence points towards Henry doing it, so the cops come. Lily gets involved with an escort who uses the motel room a few doors down and she ends up getting together with this woman and making her own life because she can’t rely on her husband anymore.” I mention that I’ve heard of the six plays, The End of Civilization is the most tragic. Liz responds, “I don’t know that this one is more tragic than the rest of them, it’s just that looking at it from a perspective of being a middle-class person, [the situation is] a very easy thing to imagine yourself being in. It’s harder to put yourself into the shoes of a low-life criminal who sells porn and steals hubcaps… it’s just easier for the average theatre-goer audience member to identify with that story especially in our current climate.”
  • “In Risk Everything, we see RJ and Denise from Problem Child again, but this is more about Denise’s mother Carol who is a total gambler she is very much in the criminal ring world. She’s taken a bunch of money that belongs to this mob boss who wants to kill her and Denise and RJ are trying to help her but she won’t actually tell them what anything is about. It’s a lot about really twisted love between Denise and Carol and the way they express it and manipulate one another in this desire to be loved.”

The Suburban Motel series runs April 29 – May 11 at C103 (8529 Gateway Boulevard). There are several different ticketing options through Tix on the Square: single ($22), double bill ($32 for both performances on a single evening), flex pass ($83.50 for six mix-and-match performances throughout the run), and a marathon pass ($78.50 for all six shows on a single Saturday). Pay-what-you-can performances are May 4, 5, and 6 and are followed by talk backs on breaking the poverty cycle, safety of sex workers, and crime and deviance.

Of the marathon days, May 2 and May 9, Andréa says, ” With Netflix available to everyone, we live in this binge-watching culture and so I think a lot of people find it attractive that they can binge watch six plays in one day and have a catered meal in-between…And then you can binge with friends rather than alone on your sofa!”

PS – check out the What It Is podcast’s episode 69: The Suburban Cormack Series, featuring interviews with the creative team.

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