2015 Edmonton Fringe Review and Recap: Pacific Time

What if the Sugarbowl had a magic time travel portal in the back?

That's the premise behind the ambitious but ultimately flawed Pacific Time, where the absolutely most stale and generic of love stories turns out to be a bittersweet moment transcending time.

NDP government worker Brian Topp Grant has been coming to this cafe a lot lately, mostly due to the fact it's the only place he ever gets to meet the charming Polly (either Leah Beaudry or Heidi MacDonald, depending on which viewing you attend). Unfortunately, she's from Victoria, and you know what Victoria people are like, do you know what I'm saying do you know what I'm saying?

Okay, you probably don't, but there are a few good early gags where Grant (Joel Dinocola) and cafe wait(ress?) Jess (Kevin Brian Huang) talk about people from Victoria as if they're space aliens from another world: they don't tend to own cell phones, those Luddite Bohemian bastards. They're always late because they apparently never set their watch to Mountain Standard Time. On top of that, the Victoria wing of the local writer's group is always the weird and quirky ones. Must be the sea breeze, guffaws Jess, which seems doubly odd since Kevin Brian Huang looks like an effeminate asian version of Bruno Gerussi. Anyways, we get a good chance to poke some innocent fun at the "otherness" of Vancouver Island people.

This is also where the play sets up some of the mysteries, lays some of the foreshadowing, and grinds to a complete fucking halt. Dinocola's stilted delivery of the admittedly clunky dialog really lays bare how much the runtime is being padded with this world-building scene, and about 10 minutes in it's revealed that Jess is an aspiring actor which Huang uses as an excuse to desperately try to chew up scenery at every opportunity, bringing a giant sense of life and animation to the character that completely mismatches the other two performances and doesn't work with the limited characterization to a character where we literally don't know if he's playing a woman or not. This mainly looks like a chance to show off some stage work -- hey look kids! acting! -- and it's an early indication of the limits to David Haas' script: he knows the world of writers and actors and NDP activists, and hey look those seem to be the only people who inhabit the world. To be fair, spend too much time listening to the types who sit around the Sugarbowl all the time and this insular view of world seems at least partially justified.

Still, we're basically killing time waiting for Polly and setting up that we're in Edmonton. very very very Edmonton! Grant's NDP candidate won her seat, and hey isn't there an Edmonton Premier whose father's name was Grant? There's an accident on the Henday, something must be done about that road, says Grant. (Actually, something was done about that road: it was built. In fact, it's build ahead of schedule and at extra money thanks in part to the opposition at the time which included that same NDP. What else does Grant want done about it? Kill the local economy so all those lanes will no longer be filled with people going to work or doing otherwise productive activity? Actually, wait, I shouldn't be putting ideas into these people's heads). There's the Edmonton writers and the Victoria writers. Victoria is so stuffy and conservative and behind the times, aren't they?

It's almost 20 minutes into the 60 minute play when Polly finally appears, and sadly at first it's dropped down as well. Dinocola looks like Sir Laurence Oliver once MacDonald takes her seat, decked out in her best impersonation of Heather Graham pretending to be from the 1960s a decade and a half ago. The two of them have a bit of awkward dialogue, which in fairness does work fairly well in the context that they're dating...or at the least, feeling each other out. A couple years ago I watched a couple coworkers involved in this same little dynamic, and while I wasn't involved for as many of the initial conversations or any nearly as intimate as two people who think nobody's watching, there was a lot of this same back and forth testing and uncertainty as two people who are physically attracted to each other play that game where they try to see how compatible in each others lives they will be, all while making sure their best sides are put forward. It's a shame, really, that we don't ever learn specifically how long they've been meeting like this. If it's a second or third date it makes sense, but the play occasionally makes it seem like a first "date" date and occasionally like this is the latest in a long series of dates where neither side has made their move.

Regardless, some of the early conversation leaves some seeds for the later revelation that the program, the playbill, and this review have already told you: there's time travel afoot here, and Polly makes an early sort-of-typing hand gesture when she mentions the "internet", while she slips that she didn't fly from Victoria but instead walked most of the time, which Grant calls her on but doesn't quite let the pieces all add up. Anyways, in a scene that doesn't seem at all weird and stalkerishly creepy, Grant reveals that he did some research on Polly and discovered that her Grandmother (probably!) wrote a book back in the late 60s. He even, after some effort, tracked the novel down. Since Polly was a budding writer working on her seminal novel, he thought it would make a sweet present. Polly seems shocked and confused that he would have a book by a woman with her name who looked like her, but finds the "Grandma" story seems pretty solid so runs with it and Polly is a time traveler from the 1960s.

Oh, sorry about that. It's just that dancing around this and leaving clues, the play overplayed [pun not intended. -ed] its hand and by now even the most obtuse of viewers has figured it out. In-universe I suppose that it's understandable that Grant hasn't, but the play keeps the "what's this crazy Polly mystery" vibe that no longer holds our interest. We've even figured out that the back is where the time portal is, since she always comes in through the back door. She's overly coy about this point, and when Grant runs to the pisser and may or may not check on her back passage [pun definitely intended. -ed], Jess comes out with coffee and we have what we think is the chance for the two characters who clearly know what's going on to discuss things without being secretive in a way that we the audience can learn more of what they know and Grant cannot. Instead, it continues to be secretive, with Jess asking if he should be the one to tell Grant "about the secret of this place" and Polly really wanting to be the one who gives him the crazy news.

when Grant comes back, the actors get to do some physical theatre with the front door, as Polly demonstrates to Grant that she physically cannot be pulled out of the cafe doors. Indeed, once Grant steps outside she can no longer even communicate with him, the sound waves from inside the cafe don't propagate to the world outside. (Light does, for some reason that doesn't really track. The idea is that the cafe is a "bubble" neither in the 1964 nor in 2015, but if light can travel into and out of the bubble then why not sound? We see that Polly can't physically leave the cafe, but photons bouncing off of her can, and her voice as a sound wave no longer becomes a physical part of her body but rather oscillations in the air surrounding her. The air within the cafe can go in and out of the front door, so oscillating air shouldn't be an exception anymore than a photon of light that happened to touch her should).

After showing him that she can't leave, she then invites Grant to use her back passage [pun is absolutely, without question, intended. -ed] and report back on the results. Grant goes out to become the absolute last person in the building to discover there's a back door to 1964, and when he's finally convinced (for some reason, he's not entirely convinced stepping back into 1964 but only when he sees that the 2015 cafe doesn't have a back door when viewed from the exterior) we get to hear some of the mechanics of this time portal. According to Jess, it's not the only place that has a time portal but this bizarre dynamic is never explored or even mentioned again. Apparently this world is filled with businesses with time travel doors that are always kept perfectly secret in the age of the internet. For contrast, Being John Malkovich took place in 1999 (the dawn of Google) and it took roughly 63 femtoseconds before the characters in it decided to start monetizing a portal into the head of an actor. A time portal, even one where you can't change your fate (as we're soon to discover) would seem to be more useful than just an opportunity to meet up and hold a trans-generational book club.

This is, fortunately, the part where the play starts to get interesting: the interplay between Grant and Polly once the secret of the time traveling cafe is revealed. There is an absolutely hilarious line that caused me to guffaw out loud (minor apologies to the actors) even though it skimmed over the rest of the crowd's head. Apparently after a few time travelers at the 'Sugarbowl' shared their experiences with a physics professor, he "did the math" and figured out the universe's rules. The notion that somewhere a physics prof is looking at a half-completed time travel formula that depends on some personal anecdotes to figure out the sign conventions is hilarious. I just pictured an old Dutch guy muttering oh, you played the stock market but the broker kept losing your file? aha, that must mean it's a cube root not a square root...Diana couldn't step into 2015 and her older self is still alive? oh! x is in the numerator then, not the denominator! I'm not sure why him "doing the math" was even thrown in...the rules of the universe are the rules of the universe, and even if physicists have theories they wouldn't be "doing the math". Anyways, I seriously had to stifle my laughter.

Again the play really found its footing now that the agonizingly slow reveal is finally over, and we can start connecting some of the earlier threads. Most of the clues dropped earlier in the play start paying off (though, frankly, a 1964 girl from BC should probably be more incredulous that Alberta -- or BC for that matter -- isn't run by the SoCreds but rather by a disgustingly offensive Premier who denies parental rights and promotes sodomy). Brian's "amazing research skills" come into play as he reveals he found more than Polly's book (sorry, if you haven't gotten up to speed on that, Polly is the author of the book because Polly is a time traveler from the 1960s), he now also knows her future. We already know that Polly is still alive in 2015 because she's unable to walk out the front door: 1964 time travelers who have already died are able to step into 2015, and 2015 time travelers are only able to enter 1964 if they haven't been born yet but will disappear if they are still in the past at the moment of their birth (not conception, which means we can probably discern playwright David Haas' views of abortion). For a brief moment, it looks like the play is about to take a dark turn. In post-play discussions, it turns out I'm not the only one who was wondering if Polly and Brian would decide to have her 2015 version killed so that Polly and Brian could be together in 2015. Instead the debate is whether or not she should use the finished book to shortcut her work; she ultimately decides not to, she learns from Brian that her hero and inspiration Margaret Laurence had remembered meeting her and even mourned that Polly only wrote a single novel, so she felt she needed to do the hard work to "live up to" Laurence's ideals, which is a nice and fitting dramatic way to avoid an ontological paradox.

By rejecting the "short-cut" method of the book, Polly gets a chance to do what otherwise is also missing from the play which is an avenue to express her own cultural mores. Despite all the hero worship for Margaret Laurence in the play, there's nothing groundbreaking even in 1964 about a female Canadian author writing a book. Both Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood won the Governor General's Award in 1966, and Gabrielle Roy had won the award in 1957. Polly (or anybody else, for that matter) was hardly required to "change the face of Canadian literature", even in the far more literate era of the 1960s. Back in the 1980s Ted Byfield famously scoffed that you're more likely to meet a person on the street with AIDS than somebody who has bought a Canadian fiction book in the past year. But still, there's a more critical thing at play here than being groundbreaking or making a difference: being true to yourself and doing what you should do. It's deeply ingrained into the cultural situation of the 1960s, and it's nice to even implicitly hold Polly to a moral standard that no present-day NDP supporter could ever live up to or even fully understand. Grant's cold "do whatever evil gets you ahead" mentality, the same one that produced the fake NDP global warming survey, contrasts well with Polly's self-respecting desire to do the right thing even if its personally unpleasant.

Indeed, the current running through the later half of the play is that Polly has decided to put everything on hold, including her love life, to finish her first work and become a published author. It's implied, whether true or not, that she's confident that after her first work comes out then she'll have time for everything else in her life. I don't know enough about the publishing industry to know if it's true or not, but it seems a little simplistically naive similar to Natalie Portman's stuttered attempts to characterize her character in the Star Wars prequels. Grant is welcome to come back to 1964 to be with her, but until the book is finished she can't fit him in, and after it's finished...well, she and Grant aren't able to be together either. The potential lovers are torn between their two worlds, and though they have come in contact, they cannot neatly intertwine. Something has to give.

The slogan to the coffee shop is "Sticky Buns to Die For", and at one point the characters literally talk about how "they got lured in by the sign". I felt much the same during the first 25 minutes of the play, that I was lured in by this time travel story that seemed to be going nowhere. It finally did get its legs and progress once the plot was underway. Haas' strength seems to be in writing plot-advancing rather than character-building dialogue, and Dinocola isn't able to give the material extra life. The flat performances make it hard to get into the characters, and while fortunately they are ultimately part of an interesting story the inability to connect with them despite all the time painfully spent "getting to know them" (again, which date is this exactly?), the personal sacrifices they make at the end seem more abstract than concrete. Peppered in with a non-comical comic relief character who has a "boring waitress"/"giant unbridled personality waiting to burst through" switch that seemingly is flipped at random, and it's a bit of a mess redeemed by the strength of its clever construct.

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