Headlining the metanarrative

The creative process can be a fascinating thing to examine. That perhaps explains why a sub-genre of films and plays have been emerging which examine the arduous journey that is creation in the entertainment industry. Writer’s Block, Eugene Stickland’s first new play in four long years, joins a laundry list of amazingly self-indulgent stories about creation. Thankfully, Stickland’s effort is pretty good.

Writer’s Block tells the tale of aging Canadian writer Luke Stike, as he languishes as a playwright-in-residence in employ to director Moss Green who is woefully unable to write anything people will pay to see. Stike’s life gets more unbearable when Revenue Canada gets on his case for not filing taxes in a decade. Backed into a corner and unable to scramble to safety, Stike makes a logical decision–he files for long-term disability with the theatre’s insurance company, citing writer’s block. Of course, as soon as he doesn’t have to work anymore he writes an amazing play, but has no way of producing it without going to jail for insurance fraud.

As a storytelling exercise, Writer’s Block has a few issues–primarily that the bulk of it is a commentary on Canadian theatre and the writing process. As a result, audience members who don’t have a background in the field may feel a bit left out. On the other hand, audience members who know a little about the subject will find many of the jokes hilarious. The play also centres on the friendship and collaborative relationship between Luke Stike and Moss Green, an obvious parallel to that of Stickland and the play’s director, Bob White. While audience members who understand their personal history will get the most out of their scenes, everybody else will just laugh at their comedic interplay.

The biggest potential issue arising from Writer’s Block lies in its constant violation of theatrical conventions: every character in the play is aware they’re in a play and acts accordingly. Stike opens each act by counting the members of the audience and imploring them to turn off their cell phones. He also often has asides with characters on other parts of the set who are obviously not part of the scene and even has a couple amusing fantasy sequences that seem like part of the play’s main narrative until their context is provided. The scenes all work–both on their own and as part of the larger whole–and the cast and crew should be commended for taking such risks, but fans of more conventional theatre may be a bit befuddled by characters showing up in scenes they’re not supposed to be in.

With no exceptions, the acting is stellar. Trevor Leigh (as Luke Stike) and Duval Lang (as Moss Green) are the lynchpins of the operation, playing off each other throughout most of the scenes. Frank Zotter hams it up as Ashcroft, an actor waiting for Stike’s next show. Karen Johnson-Diamond plays two very different characters and displays some fine comedic timing. The cast is rounded out by Arielle Rombough, who plays her character as sweet and naïve in the first act and cutthroat in the second, all without seeming awkward.

Writing and producing a play about writing and producing a play can easily fall into a pit of self-indulgence. Moreover, the audience could easily tune the play out if the subject matter is over their heads. Luckily, Eugene Stickland, Bob White and the folks at Ground Zero Theatre and Hit and Myth Productions have crafted a clever, inventive tale filled to the brim with great dialogue and impeccable comedic timing. Even if audience members are left scratching their heads afterwards due to the sheer volume of inside references, they’ll be too busy nursing their bust guts to care.

Writer’s Block runs in Vertigo Theatre until Sun., Mar. 23. Tickets at vertigotheatre.com.