Derailed – Introduction

deraile2Introduction to Derailed in Seven Short Plays from Theatre Ontario (Playwrights Canada Press)

By Skip Shand

Emil Sher’s Derailed is a challenging hybrid theatre-piece: a sharply detailed, often shrewdly comic exploration of collapsing relationships, packaged in a frenetic merger of physical theatre, music, and clown. Four frequently manic characters take a trainride that transforms their tawdry lives into vivid expressionistic extravagance. The piece depends heavily on deft and precise movement, rhythm, light, and sound, much of it scripted. Importantly, the intense physical theatricality is not an end in itself. Rather, it is a razor-sharp tool for psychic revelation, pushing the characters to open performance of their fears and desires, both conscious and unconscious.

This trainride along what Freud called the repression barrier is overseen by Victor the conductor, whose initial potential as a neutral observer is soon subverted by knee-jerk acting-out of his own “unspoken desires and dreams”. As the journey begins, Victor’s three passengers are defined by obsessive routine: Brenda, the devoted wife, carries George’s shoe in her purse, and spit-polishes it over and over. Anya, George’s mistress and colleague, tallies up sums on an old adding machine, while trying unsucessfully to keep her leg from wandering out from under her. George, fleeing from financial scandal, furtively shreds paper in a kitchen blender. Later, even the details of George’s disintegrating lovelife will smack of routine (and a stunted imagination): wife and mistress have received identical anniversary gifts, and have been taken to the same New York hotel room for identical romantic getaways.

Time and again, physical theatre generates the dramatic moment. The trainride literally throws people together, its jolts and jostles causing collisions and reconfigurations, some of them embarrassingly inconvenient, some of them luxuriously illicit. Transitions are achieved organically, for instance by sending the train through a tunnel (and into a blackout) at a crucial moment and revealing rearranged locations or pairings when the train emerges again into the light. The set itself consists simply of a pair of rails extending forward from the back wall. At the Factory Studio, they disappeared into a tunnel-like opening upstage centre. All features of the train’s interior — the compartment, the dining-car, and the adjacent corridors — are created by the actors’ constant arrangement and rearrangement of trunks and vintage suitcases. (The play is set in the 1950s.) These props also externalise the subtextual dynamics, trapping characters together or becoming the focus of their conflict. In one exuberant fantasy moment, Anya and Victor suddenly take off in the freedom of their imaginations, dancing blithely over suitcase-corridor walls as if they weren’t there at all.

Poor George is an improbable love object — a laughably childlike philanderer whose superficial successes with women and work are rapidly being overtaken by his deep-seated talent for deception and failure. Not even his puerile suicide attempt is a success, except as black comedy. The women are much more sympathetically created. Brenda is touchingly (if incomprehensibly) loyal, clinging to the dream of real children George will never give her. Anya Rumkowski is the reluctant exotic (at least, she is exotic in George’s whitebread mind). Rootless and longing for security, she is tired of living “out of a suitcase. Always moving. Always a different bed.”

The moment when Brenda unmasks Anya, letting her know that her affair with George is no longer a secret, is wonderfully understated and exact. Speaking of George’s coming disgrace, which she has just discovered, Brenda says:

Did he mention it to you?

ANYA:                  Why would he?
BRENDA:            Sometimes he talks in his sleep.

Both women look at each other, and then out the window

Though their lives are not much changed at the end of the play, the women in Derailed are clearly survivors. The final beats are wonderfully ironic, in a tragicomic vein. Together Brenda and Anya tear up the (almost identical!) suicide notes George has left them, and exit separately toward futures that may not be bright, but at least contain far fewer illusions. As for George, with all his lies laid bare, his attempt to hang himself is totally inept, and he is finally reduced to stuffing the loose end of his rope into his suitcase and shambling off with the noose still dangling around his neck. We move from sympathy at the fate of the women to laughter at the dismal incompetence of the man. And then Victor shouts “All aboard,” and life’s mad trainride starts all over again.

Skip Shand teaches English and Drama Studies at York University’s Glendon College in Toronto, and is a classical text coach.