Former Frederictonion Norm Foster--Canada's
most produced playwright--has seen a sudden burst of interest
in his work in the biggest city in Atlantic Canada. Neptune Theatre
kicked off the year with a very funny production of The Love List
starring veteran thespian and humorist Bill Carr. Now Halifax's
long-running community theatre group the Theatre Arts Guild is
in the midst of staging Foster's vignette comedy Office Hours.
In June, the Dartmouth Players will offer up the former New Brunswick
morning DJ's musical, Jasper Station.
To state that Norm Foster is a contemporary
theatrical phenomenon would be something of an understatement.
With almost 100 productions of his plays staged in the English-speaking
world--from Australia to Bermuda to Britain, Ireland, New Zealand,
Canada and the US--every year, the playwright is living proof
that theatre, as a popular art form, is far from dead.
Since the prolific playwright entered the
drama scene through a community group in Fredericton during his
long stint working a day job at a commercial radio station in
the New Brunswick capital, Foster has tended to write his stage
work with small-scale theatres in mind. Usually he designs his
plays to make use of one simple set; the characters range from
25-60 years of age, and often have 'regular' jobs as minor civil
servants, entrepreneurs and the like.
Foster's plays are sharply differentiated
from the idealized world of mainstream theatre, where a mix of
big-budget musicals, problem plays and subsidized Canadian work
often about the marginal fringes of society seem very far away
indeed from the concerns of the average entertainment-seeker.
Consequently, theatre snobs often dismiss his work as insubstantial.
They couldn't be more wrong. The fact that audiences actually
want to see his plays--The Love List at Neptune sold out
its last week through sheer word-of-mouth excitement and enthusiasm--reveals
that Norm Foster might just have a better grip on the expressive
possibilities of theatre than do many of the current practitioners
of the trade.
The Theatre Arts Guild production of Office
Hours is a case in point. Like The Love List, it shows
that Norm Foster has a unique understanding of the formal aspects
of writing for the theatre that connects directly and immediately
While The Love List cooly sent up
masculine expectations of what makes 'a perfect woman', Office
Hours explores the everyday concerns of people working in
small-time offices. These are not the big downtown conglomerations
filled with the corporate drones and ambitious executives as portrayed
on television and Hollywood motion pictures; the characters in
Office Hours are doctors, managers, and small-time agents who
can barely afford secretaries.
The action takes place over six loosely connected
vignettes that combine in the last story to tie some of the narrative
threads together. Each playlet has two or three characters, making
for a large cast overall, perfect for community theatre where
the talent pool is often both wide and deep.
Director Bill Van Gorder clearly has had
great fun putting Office Hours together. To spice up the
scene changes, he's engaged what appears to be a real cleaning
company to spruce up the set, complete with cleaning cart, plush
cushions and deluxe dusters, all executed as a kind of surreal
The six scenes unfold flush with Foster's
unique and often pointed humour. The opening scene, for example,
features a haughty broadcast manager downgrading a veteran reporter;
meanwhile a knife-wielding nut bursts into the story to push the
narrative into a completely different direction.
Many of the details Foster sets in the very
first scene get repeated throughout the play. A gag about a expensive
appointment book, for example, appears in every single vignette
until it becomes something of a centerpiece in the climactic scene
involving a psychiatrist's office and a patient threatening to
jump from the office window's ledge.
Some of the characters in that scene come
back from the second-act opener entitled The Visit. In
that vignette a young lawyer gets an unexpected visit from his
hectoring parents. The exchange results in a hilarious coming-out
exchange that ultimately sets up the incidents that make up the
fifth and sixth vignettes.
The Theatre Arts Guild's usual impressive
standard of acting, set design, costuming and stagecraft are all
on full display in the production of Office Hours. Like all good
comedies, it's briskly paced and tightly delivered; the sheer
amount of laughter coming from the audience was prodigious.
The best thing about a comedy like Office
Hours is that it will most likely tighten up even more as
the run of the production continues. The play is scheduled to
go on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights until May 12th at the
Pond Playhouse in Jollimore in the Armdale region of Halifax.
Foley Macdonald 2007