PLATONIC THEATER DATE REVIEW: Matrix Theatre’s ‘Kayak’ takes you on a provocative ride

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Dan Johnson, Kez Settle, and Claire Jolliffe star in Matrix Theatre’s “Kayak.”

The mom who can’t stand her son’s girlfriend (and vice versa) is a pretty well-worn narrative, yet Canadian playwright Jordan Hall puts a new, politically-minded spin on it via “Kayak,” now on stage at Matrix Theatre Company.

Annie (Kez Settle), the play’s central character, sits in a kayak for nearly the entire show, smearing on sunscreen; eating s’more ingredients; and telling the story of her grown son’s (Peter, played by Dan Johnson) love affair with ardent student activist Julie (Claire Jolliffe). Tension festers as Peter finds himself caught between the comfortable, conventional middle class life of his parents and the risky, altruistic life of sacrifice modeled by Julie. But why is Annie riding in Peter’s kayak? What’s happened, exactly, to put her in this unlikely situation?

Annie reveals the answers, which feel both surprising and inevitable, over the course of Hall’s 65 minute play. And Matrix’s production, directed by Amanda Grace Ewing, makes the play’s questions all the more immediate by thrusting Annie’s kayak into the seating area, so that we’re along for the ride on this sometimes funny, mostly harrowing journey.

As part of our (Don Calamia and Jenn McKee’s) new Platonic Theater Date review series, we attended the same performance of “Kayak” on Friday, April 20, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here is our joint review.

DC: “Kayak” is the perfect show for such an intimate space as the 50-seat Matrix Theatre – and one of the smartest decisions director Amanda Grace Ewing made was the placement of the kayak, with its nose pushed into the seats. Since this is a memory play, with Annie talking directly to the audience about how she ended up in her predicament, the audience becomes part of the intimacy; we’re no longer passive listeners, but active participants who she’s directly speaking to. It’s like being part of a conversation at a party – only one of us is sitting in a Kayak. You can’t help but hang on her every word.

JM: Taking this party idea further, it’s as though we in the audience are, in fact, the ones Annie describes in the opening scene as the “perfectly nice people” that Julie makes uncomfortable at parties – because of our consumerist, careless lifestyle choices, for not caring and doing enough, etc.

DC: We’ve all encountered people like that. Annie described her perfectly – and you could see people in the audience nodding in agreement.

JM: What did you think of the opening, where, under dimmed lighting, Peter is in the kayak, while Julie’s seated behind him, aggressively guiding the paddle in his hands?

DC: It was a bit confusing at first. It’s only later you realize it was a foreshadowing of things to come. One minute these two were battling for their lives, and the next minute, there’s a chirpy, upbeat motherly figure in it who starts telling us a story. It didn’t make sense.

JM: I was thrown off, too, because – as we later learn – Peter isn’t ultimately having his strings pulled by Julie. He makes a conscious choice, inspired by Julie, regarding what he wants to do with his life. I suppose the play is structured as a gradual revealing of puzzle pieces, but I nonetheless struggled to gain an initial foothold in the play’s world.

DC: Plays that jump back and forth in time – not always clearly – can be a bit frustrating. Yet more and more plays seem to be doing that these days.

JM: I’ve also noticed that quiet background choreography between characters has become a big thing lately. This is the second or third production I’ve seen that happening in recently – this time, between Peter and Julie when Annie’s speaking. In their case, it serves double duty, since they’re often doing a costume or scenic change, but still – definitely a trend.

DC: Yes it is. Sometimes it’s distracting – it takes your focus away from what’s being said or happening elsewhere. Other times, though, it’s like having smooth jazz underscoring the action. This had a little of both.

JM: I understand the temptation of doing it, but yes. I often find it more distracting than enhancing. My attention gets too divided.

DC: I got pulled out of the play a few times when Peter and Julie were threading long, red ribbons throughout the backdrop. I had no clue what they were doing – or why – and so I lost whatever it was that Annie was saying at the time.

JM: I think the red ribbons were so abstract as to feel like, well, a red herring, especially given the attention we ended up paying to them without having some kind of a payoff.

DC: Agreed.

JM: Here’s another question I have for you: I kept wondering, as the story unfolded, if it would veer into preachiness regarding its political messages (social justice, consumerism, climate change, etc.). Do you think it did?

DC: I’m glad you asked that, because there were moments in which I felt like I was being hit over the head by propaganda. Julie was SO relentless in making her points – almost to the point of physically assaulting Annie – that she lost a lot of sympathy from me. Being passionate is one thing; I can understand that. But screaming and invading another’s personal space like she did? For me, that had the opposite result than what was intended.

JM: Well, then my question for you becomes, is that a directorial misstep, in your view? Or do you think the script makes Julie too over-the-top strident?

DC: I was wondering the same thing. The characters as written are all extremes: the overprotective mother, the overly involved social justice warrior, and the mama’s boy who’s pulled in two directions and can’t seem to choose which would make him happier. It almost BEGS for that interpretation.

JM: I did feel the intense physical invasion Julie often committed against Annie when taunting or berating her tended to put me a little more on Annie’s side. It seemed like she was being bullied into silence.

DC: I had the same reaction – although Annie ALSO committed a major foul that turned people in the audience, including ME, against HER. So it went both ways.

JM: Which was that? For me, Annie buying Peter an SUV seemed a very pointed choice. Since Julie’s against any car that uses gas, she could have bought anything, rather than choose the most emblematic “f.u., eco-warrior!” kind of car. But Annie didn’t, and that seemed petty. Like she wanted to deliberately stir the pot and make Peter’s life messier.

DC: True, but I’m referring to that last encounter between Annie and Julie, in which Annie lied to her about something – which I won’t explain so that I don’t give anything away. And pretty much the entire audience reacted rather loudly to it. (We had a very vocal, responsive audience with us that night.)

JM: That’s right! And I do credit the playwright, Hall, for making this drama something far more nuanced than a straight-up environmental sermon. I really do. In my opinion, she flirts with preachiness, but because she keeps aiming for fairly balanced storytelling and characterization over that, the play never devolved into propaganda for me. I mean, Hall’s point – that we willfully ignore the Julies of the world simply because it’s easier, more comfortable, and less stressful for us to do so, regardless of the dire consequences – is a timely one. That said, though, Peter is the least satisfying, least filled-out character in the script. He seems merely a crucible of conflict for these two women, who both have things that make them likable, but have considerable flaws, too. Plus, they both have some things right. And a fight between equals is always more involving and fascinating than a one-sided knockout.

DC: Agreed. This isn’t a “she’s right” and “she’s wrong” kind of story. This really IS about two strong-willed women who are passionate, but in different ways, battling it out, with Peter as the prize. You can sympathize with both women.

JM: And the end, which explains why Annie finds herself in the kayak, was surprising and satisfying to me. Despite some clear clues, I hadn’t seen that coming. Yes, it seems to come down on the side of Julie’s worldview, and re-raises all the questions she’d peppered Annie with earlier – except now, rather than being hypothetical, they’re literal. Which tipped the scales, certainly, but I found it an intriguing end.

DC: It certainly WAS unexpected, and it did tie everything together. But the fact that it so blatantly tipped those scales – again, I don’t want to give anything away – is why I referred to it earlier as propaganda.

JM: As a sidenote, Peter’s romanticization of a person who dedicates her life to a cause, even though she’ll likely have zero impact, hit a bit of a nerve for me – being an underemployed former journalist who’s still out there blogging about local theater. Ahem.

DC: (laughs) I totally understand! Although I’d like to think you and I have SOME impact on our small corner of the globe!

JM: Here’s hoping.

DC: For me, it was the performances that really made the experience worthwhile.

JM: Me, too. I thought Settle was terrific. A little mischievous and manipulative, but also witty. For the show to work, we have to connect with her. Like she’s letting us into her life.

DC: Very much so, in all regards. You couldn’t help but like Annie. Settle’s storytelling was superb – especially so since she was mere inches away from some of the patrons. What concentration she had! That must not have been a very comfortable 65 minutes for her.

JM: Yes. I was really impressed with how poised Settle was in that awkward position. But it really helped endear her character to us. Annie goes too far at times, as we’ve mentioned, but because her life likely most resembles our own, we feel a kinship with her and sympathize. What did you think of Johnson and Jolliffe as the ill-fated lovers?

DC: I found their interactions to be quite complex, actually. There were multiple agendas at play: Peter was looking for some excitement outside of his parental-planned upper-middle-class existence, while Julie was looking for someone to convert to the cause. So I’m not sure they really LOVED each other, but rather, they loved what the other stood for – and I felt that came across quite well. You?

JM: Yes, I too kept thinking, do they love the person or the “cause”? Because as you point out, the context seems to be more the glue, the foundation, than who they are as people. That makes the characters a challenge to play. I did think Johnson may have been a hair too old for this part, but he delivered on the buried intensity that he effectively brings to almost every role he plays. This is an interesting tool for him, as it makes his characters’ seemingly irrational choices feel more believable. Like there’s something in him that’s never all-the-way visible. And Jolliffe had that unshakable quality about her, too – which she needed to have, definitely, to bring Julie to life.

DC: I’m beginning to think I’m either stalking Johnson or becoming a groupie because of how many shows he’s been in that I’ve written about. What I loved about his performance THIS time was that it was a bit more low key and constrained than many of his others, which allowed him to find the deeps subtleties of his character.

JM: Yes. And as I said, his character, in my mind, is less developed than the other two. He’s the supporting player in their drama.

DC: Exactly. This isn’t HIS story; it belongs to the women in his life. He’s just along for the ride. (Bad pun, I know.) As for Jolliffe, she certainly packs a lot of punch into her young body. Whereas Johnson plays Peter as a milquetoast, Jolliffe is the polar opposite. The contrast between the two is quite clear.

JM: I wondered if there was room for any humor in her role, or if that would have undermined the laser-like focus Julie has on bettering the world.

DC: I’m not sure the script lent itself to much humor on her part. People on a mission often are rather humorless. Relentless, yes; humorous, no.

JM: I suppose that’s true. And that is one of Annie’s criticisms of Julie, so Jolliffe pretty much had to play it straight – and she did. There’s a palpable sense of Julie’s iron will in her performance – partly through her rigid, deliberate physical movements. She’s so sure of herself that it throws everyone around her off-balance.

DC: It was an almost scary performance, actually, because of the intenseness of her portrayal – but it worked. Annie was the funny one; Julie’s the serious one.

JM: Another point of contrast.

DC: Exactly.

JM: Yet they’re both “dig your heels in and fight” kind of ladies, so they have that in common. As for us, let’s move on to the show’s tech folks – but first, let me say this is the first time I’ve seen “production nanny” listed in a program. Yay, Matrix! That sounds like a fantastic thing.

DC: (laughs) What an image that creates!

JM: Love it. Anything that makes it feasible for people to take care of their family AND pursue their art is a wonderful thing. Bravo, Matrix! But in other news, multiple Gaidicas are represented via “Kayak.” Chantel Gaidica did the colorful, atmospheric lighting for the show, and Charlie Gaidica did the set, with the draped, hanging white fishnet backdrop, and Annie’s kayak in the crowd.

DC: Both have developed excellent reputations in the community for their work, and this show is no different. I loved that the set was simple, but descriptive. Anything more would have been overkill.

JM: And Casaundra Freeman’s sound design plays a key role, too, particularly as the show reaches its conclusion. Rarely has gently lapping water sounded so haunting before.

DC: Agreed. This is a show in which tech is important to make the show work – especially in such close confines – and sound in particular added significant resonance to the show’s conclusion.

JM: Overall, I was really glad to be introduced to both Matrix (my first visit, believe it or not!) and to this play. Theater should be a place where human stories launch hard conversations, and I think Matrix’s team did a really solid job bringing Hall’s script to life.

DC: I agree. Matrix has long been known for tackling socially conscious themes, and while it’s been quite some time since I’ve been there, “Kayak” served to remind me just how good their work can be.

“Kayak” continues its run at Detroit’s Matrix Theatre through April 29. For showtime and ticket information, visit https://www.matrixtheatre.org.

This independent review was funded by my Patreon page, which allows readers who value local professional theater criticism to pledge a monthly amount – anything from $1 to $30 or more – to support my efforts. If you appreciated this review, and would like to see more content like this, please consider pledging via the link above. Thanks!

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