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Shangri-La Review

September 27, 2013

A show which opens with a temper tantrum is bound to catch your attention, and that is certainly the case with Shangri-La, written and performed by Judy Wensel as part of the Shumiatcher Sandbox Series at Globe Theatre.

The temper tantrum I am talking about is pitched in a pillow-wielding fury by a 14-year-old named Jeanne McCate, who has been banished to the bedroom by her no-nonsense mother and ordered to stay there until she has pulled herself together.

Eventually, Jeanne will do exactly that, but not before Wensel has treated her audience to a story that tells of a family in crisis and one adolescent’s attempt to cope. A teenager’s life is complicated enough without an older sister, 16-year-old Connie, who is pregnant and, with mother’s support, determined to keep her baby.

At first, Jeanne is resentful of her sibling. She is concerned that it will reflect poorly on her to have a sister with an out-of-wedlock child. In the end, however, she displays sufficient maturity to put aside her self-interests in favour of family solidarity, regardless of the personal sacrifice it might require.

All of this unfolds one night in late August of 1963 in the rural community of Millard, which offers the charms of small-town life and inevitably the headaches, as well. The show ends as abruptly as it began, but the passionate frenzy we saw in the initial scene has given way to a stoic calm as surely as our heroine has swapped blue jeans and blouse for a pink party dress she is to wear to the annual Harvest Family Dance.

Around the primary storyline, Wensel has woven threads that embroider her tale as a series of short anecdotes whose subjects and themes include what you would expect for a young woman in Jeanne’s situation, not only in a general sense of boys and girls and school, friends and neighbours, gossip and innuendo, but also through vignettes that deal more specifically with stuff like how her father and mother met, her father’s alcoholism, and Jeanne’s own flirtation with drinking beer and experimentation with cigarettes.

These various episodes are punctuated by music, music and more music. Wensel has chosen from a wide selection of pop tunes that served as a soundtrack of teenage existence in that time period, and as she spins the 45s and LPs on her portable record player, Jeanne sings along with the songs and even goes as far as to plant kisses on an album sleeve.

If there’s a bottom-line message in Shangri-La, it is delivered in Jeanne’s observation that we are all just treading water and the only options are to sink or swim.

This show was dramaturged by Denise Clarke and Michelle Kennedy, who doubles as its director. Shaunna Dunn provided design support for costumes and set, and all things technical were in the capable hands of Patrick James.

I hope you’ll go and see it.

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