Review by Sean McQuaid
Evan Brown hit the PEI theatre scene like a sucker punch to the gut with his self-penned one-man show, Rorschach, an unsettling portrait of a mentally ill murderer. His subsequent theatrical bouts included a round as the bloodthirsty madman Renfield in Dracula: The Undead, though Brown's show biz work took a back seat to controversial political activities for a while. This summer, Brown steps back into the theatrical ring and once again proves himself a contender with Walkabout, perhaps the most refreshingly original new show in the province; and while madness of a sort underlies the story, it's a far more hopeful, humane and humourous offering than his earlier work.
Struggling writer Sebastian (Pete Murphy) has a case of writer's block stemming from traumatic memories, long-term depression and (just for good measure) brain cancer. He hasn't even been able to dream, but the right combination of medication and determination (mixed well with a bottle of booze) changes all that when Sebastian starts having vivid visions of a man named William Apple (John Vandergaag), a traveller lost in a surreal dreamscape. Apple's quest for a home parallels (and eventually connects with) Sebastian's quest to regain mastery of his own mind. Aiding their joint quest are eccentric dream-folk Gideon (Dean Gallant), Petra (Sarah Cameron) and the Mutes (Andrea Stewart & Tommy Grant). Standing in their way are homicidal hallucinations Killjester (Jonathan Stewart) and The Botanist (Graham Putnam), personification of the cancer which threatens to consume Sebastian.
The show is written, directed and stage managed by Brown, so it's very much his baby even though he has no on-stage role. His script is jampacked with symbolism, metaphors and layered meanings, a filling mental meal that doubles as a low-key fantasy adventure without becoming pretentious or ponderous. Brown's creation of two playing spaces (one for Sebastian's office and one for Apple's dream world) keeps the play moving quickly by almost completely eliminating the need for set changes. The production values are low given the modest resources of the Misery Loves Company, but Brown and company make the most of it.
Gallant looks and sounds a perfect match for the part of the imperturbable Gideon, though his delivery is often too swift and soft to convey the lines clearly. Cameron, by comparison, captures the placid, reassuring calm of Petra somewhat more intelligibly. Murphy is endearingly human as Sebastian, though his energy level and his rapport with the audience are both somewhat inconsistent, and he occasionally seems to lose his enthusiasm for the talky script. Stewart, on the other hand, is consistently manic and often entertaining as Killjester, though he doesn't always take the time to fully savour the delicious lines Brown crafts for his character; still, in his unmatched ability to embody an impotently menacing nebbish, Stewart is ideal for the part. Vandergaag gives a very strong, well-rounded performance as Apple, playing off the other characters nicely while crafting a sympathetic, believable and interesting personality for the bemused wanderer.
The real cherry atop this surreal sundae, though, is Putnam's Botanist. He only appears in the second act, but Putnam's bigger-than-life swagger and voice-of-doom delivery combine with Brown's plum dialogue to create a bush league theatrical Darth Vader that almost completely steals the entire show. Great fun, and a great over-the-top performance.
Regardless of Putnam, Walkabout is a fun play. It's full of dark, foreboding overtones (as one might expect from Brown), and that helps create a certain degree of necessary suspense, but the play never loses its sense of whimsy and hope amidst the deep thoughts and dark currents. It's the feel-good thinking man's play of 2001.