Theatre review: The Woodcutter at the Bus Stop

This ambitious Matchstick production features a standout performance from Sébastien Labelle.

click to enlarge SAMM FISHER
Matchstick Theatre ventures deep into the forest with The Woodcutter, a play written by Don Hannah and helmed by its resident director Jake Planinc. An ambitious one-hander, the show rests on the performance of its only actor, Sébastien Labelle. Labelle surrenders himself entirely to the role of Ted, a man navigating the dark forest that is the extensively transformed Bus Stop Theatre.

The set itself—beautifully designed by Wes Babcock—though impressive and realistic, makes the conscious decision to sacrifice maximum seating for visual aesthetics. Though the scenery unquestionably enhances the ambience, the staggered seating set-up does create visual obstacles for some of the audience members in the back rows.

As for the play, Planinc wraps Labelle in darkness. Staggering around on set, the disoriented Ted is a cryptic mess. His “Ted talk’’ is a successive barrage of recovered childhood anecdotes as well as allusions to a life just recently left behind. But what is the reason for his exodus to the woods? It comes as no surprise that the truth is not immediately exposed in the 90-minute performance. It’s also a reveal that comes after much patience on the audience’s behalf.

Labelle is great in the tortured skin of Ted. As time passes, the life of his character peels away like tree bark, leaving behind bleeding vestiges that slowly reveal an awful truth. Labelle portrays vulnerability with impressive skill—moments when he's wracked with unimaginable grief or failing to curtail his immense anger are The Woodcutter’s greatest offerings. His onstage alter-ego has had anything but an easy life: Scrapes with the law, a deteriorating marriage and his assertions of not fulfilling his role as a father are all fragments of a vast, unforgiving existence.

Yet one can’t help but feel as if all these memories are often as dense as the forested world Ted inhabits. Yes, every memory adds its own small weight into the ultimate Ted we see at the show’s conclusion, but some of it felt slow-going, more of an issue with the script itself than a directorial or acting problem. While the writing is realistic and visceral, a majority of playwright Hannah’s work borders on the tangential. Characters and conflicts come forth with twisted realism, yet a lot of the ramblings toe the line of being miring and tiresome. While Matchstick Theatre can—and should—applaud itself on tackling the darker, serious theatre that others won’t dare to do, it should be warned that it runs the risk of losing its audience on the journey.

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