The Russian Play and Mexico City some of the season's best theatre

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      By Hannah Moscovitch. Directed by Christian Barry. A 2b theatre company production presented by Ruby Slippers Theatre. At Performance Works on Wednesday, March 24. Continues until March 28

      This is how it’s done, folks. The conceptual complexity of Mexico City and The Russian Play is perfectly complemented by the exquisite simplicity of their staging. This is some of the best theatre you’ll see all season.

      Toronto playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who wrote both of these one-acts, energizes them with sophisticated juxtapositions. In the 25-minute Mexico City, a young married couple travels to the southern capital in 1960, hoping that a little stimulation will put some spark back into their union. But they get more than they bargained for: Henry isn’t pleased when he notices Mexican men eyeing Alice, and Alice gets woozy in the Mayan temple, even though Henry is thrilled by the gutters designed to sluice away the blood of human sacrifices.

      As Alice and Henry’s cautious white Canadian-ness butts up against a culture of enormous historical depth and passion, there are other tensions too. Under Christian Barry’s direction, Alice and Henry keep rictus grins plastered on their faces, even as they ooze mutual resentment. And they refer to themselves in the third person, and to their adventure in the past tense. When the characters—briefly—switch into the present, the sudden emotional immediacy feels like a slap in the face. But it’s not all conflict; surprising romanticism also emerges. In precise performances, actors Tessa Cameron and Conor Green mine this material for every ironic nuance.

      Mexico City warms the stage for The Russian Play, which is a knockout. Right off the top, a hard-bitten, apparently depressed female narrator sends up the stereotypes of Russian drama and the supposedly melancholy Russian soul: “I know what you are thinking,” she says, before adding in a voice soaked in despair: “You are thinking, ”˜This is Russian play.’” In her Stalinist-era tale, writer Moscovitch juxtaposes this narrative voice with scenes of sensuousness and lyricism. The storyteller introduces us to Sonya, the beautiful flower-shop girl, and her lover, Piotr the gravedigger. The same actor plays both the narrator and Sonya: when Piotr leans in to kiss Sonya the scene is so swooningly romantic you feel like you’re there, then Sonya suddenly becomes the narrator again and throws cold water on us with an unimpressed “So. You see how it was between them.”

      It would be difficult to overpraise actor Colombe Demers, who plays the women already mentioned as well as the ancient owner of the flower shop. Not only are these characterizations immaculately distinct, Demers somersaults from the deadpan comedy of the narrator to the openhearted innocence of Sonya with the alacrity of an acrobat. And, when she wants to, Demers reveals similarities between the characters, which takes incredible skill.

      There are a couple of holes in Moscovitch’s script, including an unlikely prison visit, but overall it’s a triumph. She pulls the stereotype of Russian sadness inside out, transforming it into comedy, and then revealing a genuinely moving tragedy.

      Moscovitch couldn’t ask for a better director than Barry, who has also done the lighting and sound for this double bill by Halifax-based 2b theatre company. These pieces depend on a masterful control of style, which Barry delivers. And his lighting and sound are textbook examples of minimalist elegance. Just wait for the set of cues that comes in The Russian Play’s prison scene. Barry uses chiaroscuro like Rembrandt.