We’re lucky to have such a vibrant and well-supported theatre community in St. Catharines. Not only does Brock’s Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts provide a home for many aspiring theatre kids (in conjunction with the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre), but this city is bustling with countless examples of great theatrical talent.
One of the hardest working groups in the city is Twitches and Itches Theatre, whose newest play September Songs just finished its run at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. My experience has always been that theatre is a hard sell: unless you already like theatre, it can be a struggle to find something appealing. September Songs doesn’t have that problem, however. This is a charming and delightful piece of theatre which shows off everything that’s great about the performing arts, whether or not you’ve had previous experience.
Devised by the group over the last few years, September Songs is about being in university; at least, it’s about that on the surface. We follow the President (and CEO) of the fictional Lazlo University on his journey to improve ‘client satisfaction’. We also follow the students caught in the midst of that change. That president is played by Eduardo DiMartino and is one of the biggest highlights of the show. DiMartino’s dialogue is a cynical take on the role of corporate sponsorship in education, wrapping up terrible ideas inside exciting-sounding business proposals. The energy with which he pitches his plan to maximize the efficiency of the school gives the play a tinge of black comedy and keeps the pace at a good level.
But it’s the students themselves, caught in the midst of this plan, that give the play a deeply personal connection to its audience. A girl with a Bible quote of the day and a belief that God sent her to save the world (Sean McClelland). An ex-skater kid who came to be able to provide for his brothers now that his mother has passed (Sean Rintoul). A criminal who’s looking for second lease of life (Iain Lidstone). A mature student who works full time alongside her classes in order to support her struggling family overseas (Kaylyn Valdez-Scott). Everyone is here for different reasons, brought together by a Study-Buddy app that seems to take all the fun out of just meeting people, but made close by the one thing they have in common: a desire for something real.
There’s a great emotional core to these students. The scenes where friendships bloom and relationships blossom are some of the most sincere and heartfelt. It’s a shame that these moments take a backseat to the scenes that serve the more political themes of the play. Not that either is better or worse than the other, but the latter gets a bit more time and at only 75 minutes in length, there’s plenty of room for them to exist in a balance with just an extra couple of scenes.
September Songs is also an incredibly visually striking play. It’s amazing what they achieve with such a relatively small cast, a handful of props and careful attention to lighting design. A few key moments are emphasized by colourful lighting, but for the most part a keen use of directional lighting is all that’s needed. There are also a couple of scenes that make use of total darkness, which works brilliantly. Even beyond the technical perspective the play is stunning to look at, full of brilliantly choreographed physical movement that can make scenes play out like either a soothing dream or a haunting nightmare. The play works best when this choreography is bolstering great dialogue, as is the case in many scenes. However, there is a scene in the middle, dealing with American interventionism, that I fear that the choreography couldn’t help: the dialogue here was just a little too direct, which is all the more noticeable given how clever the rest of the play is with its material.
The play reaches its peaks when it uses its cheerful-sounding, bitter cynicism to discuss its topics. Lazlo University is less a University and more a collection of corporate sponsorships; the president has all the time in the world for pretty white boy Jimmy Buchanan and none at all for Latina mature student, Anita Hernandez. The one thing missing from the president’s ‘satisfaction surveys’ is whether or not the students are actually learning anything or enjoying themselves. All the while though, he is insistent that he’s got everything under control, even as the system and the people in it fall apart. It’s a probing and cynical look, not just at some of the failings of the education system, but at how bad people can make their greedy intentions seem like good ideas for everyone else. It’s about how being taught something and learning it for yourself are two very different things. But more than anything it asks an incredibly important question, to students, professors, everyone: “what are we even doing here?”
In spite of a few minor faults, September Songs is a powerful piece of theatre, made with passion and love that rings true throughout the show. Twitches and Itches have truly outdone themselves.