Review: 'An Almost Holy Picture' at Fire Exit Theatre

Vicki Trask

  • Calgary Critic

I attended “An Almost Holy Picture” with no real expectation of what to expect. I’m not overly familiar with Fire Exit Theatre, despite celebrating its 15th Season, and I didn’t do any research about the show I would see. I wish I had. The Engineered Air Theatre was transformed into a church garden as we’re introduced to groundskeeper Samuel Gentle in this two and a half hour, one man play. Throughout the show, he tells the audience about the four events that shaped his belief in God. From childhood, to tragedy, to facing adversity, and finally overcoming it, we are meant to be inspired and transformed by Samuel’s tale. I regret to report that I was left underwhelmed, confused, and bored by this show.

I found playwright Heather MacDonald’s words to be long-winded, repetitive and unfocused. To start with, I had no idea who Samuel was talking to or why. I didn’t know why I needed to care and I had no investment in his story. I think Heather’s words were meant to have a higher meaning than I interpreted. There was no payoff; and on top of that, Samuel would briefly mention something and promise to “come back to that” but he never did. It felt like he gave more value to some statements over others when I, as an audience member, wanted more. I think this entire script would have benefited from more concentration and an end goal.

I can say the same for the rest of the show, especially in Royal Sproule’s direction. He made a lot of weird choices that didn’t add to my understanding or investment in the character. The amount in which actor Barrett Hileman moved around the stage was distracting and inconsistent – sometimes he moved to indicate a thought or location change but other times he didn’t and where he moved was also inconsistent. It felt like Barrett was going where he was told but didn’t understand why. In fact, his entire performance felt scripted. When he paused for emotional effect, I honestly thought he’d forgotten his lines. His voice stayed in the same emotional range the entire show and I didn’t connect with him at all. Between his line delivery and the unsettling amount of prop and costume changes, the pace of the show just lagged.

Robyn Ayles’ lighting design was also off-putting. The stage felt very busy – as though there were a new lighting cue for every new thought. The use of real water on a fairly small stage meant that there was light bouncing off in unusual directions and it became distracting. I felt the projections did help to give context to the story and some of the location shots were beautiful but overall, I wasn’t entertained. On a side note, props to the stage management team (Michael Fiss and Joy Stadler) who clean up at the end of every night. I was content with Jordan Cutbill’s sound design until the second act when the sound suddenly became choppy, and seemed to have volume control problems. It was also more of a distraction than an assistant to the story.

I’m not sure what I expected when I walked into the Engineered Air Theatre but I left feeling so unsatisfied. I wish I could say that I enjoyed myself but I simply did not.