New trilogy “Truth, Lies and Deception” sells out in Paris
Intimate Theatre Returns to Paris with Joanna Pickering’s
Impacting Debut Trilogy — and Sell Out Dates.
“Hard-hitting, twist-turning, unsettling plays with pitch black humor”
Pickering and Bradford, powerfully directed by Chris Mack.
Pickering’s Trilogy of plays “Truth, Lies and Deception” debuted in Paris with sell out shows. The trilogy showcased in December with star cast and music by Angela McCluskey. The plays all contain strong female themes. Pickering’s leading characters—her women—struggle against a persistent backdrop of patriarchal issues with damning or heart-rending consequence. The plays mark Pickering as a refreshing, brave, debut playwright. Scott Bergstrom attended three nights in Paris and gives his take on the shows.
Article by Scott Bergstrom.
While the headlines about the return of live theatre around the world usually focus on big theatre—West End, Broadway—it is the return of small theatre that many critics, playwrights, and performers have been looking forward to most. Minimally staged, often quiet, always subtle, Truth, Lies and Deception by Joanna Pickering (Primitive Grace Ensemble, Theatre 68) is a case in point. Premiering at Le Pavé D’Orsay Theatre come gallery in Paris on 16 December, with sold out shows, Pickering’s trilogy of cleverly crafted one-act plays, provided exactly the kind of richly grown-up theater experience so many of us have been craving.
Such an intimate theater space is the right venue for stories that happen between intimates, whether lovers or friends. But in Pickering’s world, whatever sentiment exists between her characters, quickly turns toxic. We meet her characters at moments that will become inflection points in their live— a date assault that may or may not have been, the final nail in the coffin for an aging actress fighting ageism in Hollywood, and an island holiday that has taken a turn for the dark and disastrous.
Pickering’s trilogy opens with Cat and Mouse a play that seems inevitably bound for controversy as Pickering approaches the subject from an untouched angle.
Jade, played with depth and sophistication by Pickering herself (Lady Macbeth, The Vagina Monologues) is an aspiring actor, who has just returned from her date with legendary film director Marcus Meekus, played by Robert Williams Bradford (Finding Babel, Highlander, West Side Story). Her roommates Harriet, played by Koël Purie-Rinchet (Rock On, On the Couch with Koel), and Rosie, played by Eugenia Kuzmina (Spy City, The Gentlemen, Bad Moms, New Girl) argue over whether an attempted assault took place. However, Jade insists the encounter was consensual—well, kind of—unable to decide if she has had “the best night” or “the worst” of her life. Both Purie-Rinchet and Kuzmina make their antipodal roles—stern mother hen and click-hungry it-girl—rich and fully-realized. Nuances in Pickering’s performance may suggest clues to some gas-lighting at hand, but the audience are kept in the dark. However, it is the flashback of the date between Jade and Meekus that forms the heart of Cat and Mouse, yet will do little to clear up confusion about what happened, giving us only a glimpse of the evening’s events.
Pickering is skillful in the role, projecting, in the same moment, world-weariness and a starry-eyed belief in love everlasting (or at least a career boost) while the performance of Robert Williams Bradford should be remarked on in particular. It would be easy to play Meekus as a mustache-twirling stock villain. Instead, Bradford, directed by Chris Mack (co-founder of Paris Playwrights and former member of Blueprint Theatre, The Empty Space Theatre, and Annex theatre) inhabits a delicate midpoint, somewhere between Harvey Weinstein and Forrest Gump, swinging between lecherous, if inept, predator and a pitiable, clueless loser.
Likewise, Jade dwells in ambivalence, forcefully, trying to take control one moment, then submissively following Meekus’s commands in the next, as the power game swings. An unmistakable professional chemistry exists onstage between the actors, enhanced by dance sequences and the music of chanteuse Angela McCluskey. In the end, Cat and Mouse is less about assault, than a surprise look at the narratives that form around it.
Sylvie and Sly, the second play in Pickering’s trilogy, is the lightest of the three—if we can call the metaphysical despair of an aging actress flailing against her own mortality “light.” It is, at least, deliberately funny, while the humor in the other two plays comes only in the very darkest varieties.
Sylvie, performed by Julie Kalya (award recipient for The Woolgatherer, Bazaar and Rummage by Sue Townsend), and her social media consultant, Kester Lovelace (artistic director of Drama Ties) both plot Sylvie’s comeback to the silver screen through contrived, and comically untrue, Instagram posts. Kalya’s hilarious performance turns the dial of manic self-delusion up as far as it will go, while Lovelace both enables her and tries to pull her back from the brink. Thomas Hardy, as the barrel-chested tough sent by the landlord to evict Sylvie, provides additional comic relief.
A cringey, joy to behold, the plot unfurls like an extended, 30-minute joke, that will either stick the landing, or not, depending on the delivery of Pickering’s single punchline at the end. Nevertheless, Sylvie and Sly works as sharp commentary on the superficiality of both Hollywood and social media, and how they intersect in the life of an aging actress striving for one last shot at success.
Beach Break, the final play in Pickering’s dark triptych, is the most impactful and ominous. Zurie (Koël Purie-Rinchet) and Layla (Joanna Pickering) awaken in a cheap motel room on an unnamed island, with neither remembering much of how they got there. Check-out time was hours ago, and they are at the tail end of a 72-hour Jaeger bomb and cocaine bender. There are references to an incident the night before, but in typical Pickering fashion, details are sketchy, and so are the women’s memories. Pickering’s plot drives forward into disaster, but as details of their weekend, and their friendship, are revealed, the audience is only ever given a partial view of what transpired, and are sure only that the consequences for both women are dire. The play is brilliantly staged and directed by Pulchérie Gadmer (4.48 psychose, Fragments after Sarah Kane at the Nanterre-Amandiers Theater Aquarium, L’Illusion comique by Pierre Corneille, Avignon Festival and Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe) as Zurie and Layla hopscotch their way through what we discover is a semi-flooded room. By restricting the actor’s blocking to pathways of bricks on the floor, we feel the confinement and impending danger, without the technique interfering with unfolding of the action. Purie-Rinchet superlatively plays the drugged-out party girl mess that is Zurie, while Pickering gives a tragic and powerful sense of glassy-eyed wonder, contemplating the size of the rolling waves that “remind of death.” Pickering then leads us on a poignant, unsettling, and, of course, incomplete account of an assault, as the play u-turns from any last laughs into a predicament that is as hellish as it is unexpected.
Truth, Lies and Deception will not be well-received by those who like their narratives clear, their morality rendered in monochrome, and their victims to be, well, victimy. All Pickering’s women are real, messy, and complex. The question of what constitutes the truth, and who gets to decide, permeates all three plays, and the author does us no favors along the way. When it comes to narrative, Pickering is like a 19th Century anarchist, tossing bombs into the audience, not caring who gets hurt. In other words, this is theater at its smallest, most interesting, and most life-like, with no tidy answers, but plenty of confounding questions that linger onwards.
Truth, Lies and Deception ran on December 16, 17th and 18th in Paris — with Sylvie and Sly as a staged reading due to unforeseen pandemic circumstances with Kester Lovelace playing Sly instead of Manuel Sinor, and the staged reading directed by Chris Mack.
The program listed the following credits:
Produced by Joanna Pickering and Koël Purie Rinchet.
Artistic Directors: Chris Mack, Christine Cirker (Barrow Group FAB Women), Joanna Pickering, Koël Purie Rinchet.
Executive Producers: Kevin Mahaney, Koël Purie Rinchet, Joanna Pickering.
Directors: Chris Mack, Alessia Siniscalchi, Pulcherie Gadmer.
Assistant Director: Tori Johnson.
Stage Manager: Tori Johnson.
Sound and lighting: Francisco Ramos.
Music featuring Angela McCluskey “Wild Le Temps D’Amour.’
Set artist: Stephanie Gallagher (for sale contact firstname.lastname@example.org)
Supported by The International Center Of Women Playwrights,
Licensing Gene Kato from Next Stage Press.
Scott Bergstrom is an author and Edgar Award finalist whose novels have been translated into 20 languages. Photography by Rhoderic Land.
Joanna Pickering @joannapickering instagram, twitter www.joannapickering.com