Review: 'The Tall Building' at Handsome Alice Theatre

Vicki Trask

  • OnStage Calgary Critic

Director Denise Clarke describes “The Tall Building” by Jill Connell as magic, real, freaky, and funny. I could not sum it up better. This show was… tangible; something that grabbed at me (or wanted to, anyways). I laughed, I clutched my chest, I stared on in confusion; it was a ride to say the least.

I attended the first preview performance of Handsome Alice Theatre’s production at Big Secret Theatre on Friday September 9th 2016 and I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. I often flip flop between wanting to know everything about a show before I see it and loving the surprise. In this case, I’m not sure if knowing the synopsis would have helped.

Three misfits meet high above the ground in a building that keeps growing floors. These are our times: destructive weather, unruly humans, and coyotes in the 7-Eleven. Inspired by days and nights lived in an Edmonton high-rise, this dark comedy is an emergency call made by those searching for identity, connection, and a sense of home. Performed at the intersection of skill and instinct, The Tall Building is a negotiation between danger and tenderness as we continue to wonder how to make a city that works.

If I had to describe this show myself I would say it’s about humans finding companionship and a sense of self. I admit I was initially put off by the movement in this show. It introduced a lot of emotion-driven action and required imagination from the audience. I loved using my imagination to create the world these characters lived in. The set was simplistic and achieved everything it needed to. I really liked being able to see all angles of the story. As the drama shifted, so did the audience. It took a few scenes for me to establish the environment but once I did, it was easy to follow.

The plot itself flowed in a very interesting manner. The scenes were broken up between dialogue/monologues and silent movement accompanied by music. For the most part, I found the movement to be more distracting than helpful in telling the story. I understood the importance of dialogue-free scenes but I didn’t understand the importance of all of the scenes. I spent more time trying to understand what movement they were making than enjoying the movement itself. 

I just didn’t get it.

The actors told a fascinating story – if a little vague. Along with minimal set, the character’s backstories were also undefined. We learned tidbits throughout the story and I love a long, drawn out reveal but I left the theatre with questions that didn’t make sense to be left unsaid. I wish there were things that weren’t left up to interpretation. I also wish some of the actors were more on top of their lines but I’m more forgiving of a preview performance. 

I have no real complaints or criticisms about the acting itself. The protagonist Sulla (portrayed by Geneviève Paré) was appropriately butch and closed off, somewhat disconnected from her reality. She was a free thinker in a world literally crumbling around her. 

Sulla meets a boy who lives across the hall from her and he just broke my heart. The Boy (played by Geoffrey Simon Brown) struck a maternal, isolated chord with me. Something about his performance drew me in; all long limbs and broken spirit. I personally connected with him the most.

And then there’s the Assassin. Telly James plays a smug, agile, lonely assassin who appears in Sulla’s life. This was a character I couldn’t quite understand at first; it took some context and explanation but I eventually grasped his role in the grand scheme of things. There was something about his energy that just stilted his performance of the secretive killer. I wanted more from him – and he had more to give.

Props and costumes were also another hit and miss for me. I honestly thought the Assassin was wearing pajamas. He might have been but that wasn’t clear to me. Sulla’s costume fit very well with the script but my question to the props department is: why did you give more significance to some props over others? Without giving too much away, there was a monologue with movement that sat with me uncomfortably. I laughed with how ridiculous it was but I didn’t understand why that prop, why that movement was chosen. It was incomprehensible. 

I suppose I applaud this show for making me think on a Friday night, but I’m not sure if I came to the right conclusions. The execution left me lost in the cosmos and I long for a little clarity. For a story about humans and the end of society, I rarely felt a sense of foreboding or even hope. I’m afraid the overall message of the story was lost on me.

Perhaps if I had known the style of show I was about to watch I would have had an easier time understanding. Or maybe this contemporary fantasy just wasn’t for me. Alas, you will have to see for yourself.

Radio One: over to you.