“Dan is a man who cya hold he hand when it comes to woman,” is how Philomena Alexis Baptiste, as the play’s narrator, describes the titular character in Christine Johnson’s Dan the Travelling Man (a Baggasse Company production). I saw the play for the first time during its encore run at Central Bank on Saturday the 30th of September; and Philo’s assessment of Dan’s character was spot on, if not an understatement.
Dan, played by Cacique award-winner Aaron Schneider, is a businessman whose job takes him all over the Caribbean. Dan almost redefines the label lothario as he has found it necessary to have seven different wives on separate islands. From Jamaica, to Barbados, to Guyana, Dan’s delicately woven web of deception comes to a chaotic head when his many lives (via his wives) collide at the Piarco International Airport.
Dan the Travelling Man is based on an interesting premise, one that sounds like a twisted, crazy, fun time. Johnson’s script did deliver on some crazy scenarios and colourful characters, but all in all, it left much to be desired. I left the Central Bank auditorium feeling slightly underwhelmed.
Schneider, for example, skillfully played the role of Dan with a frenetic panic that made for many of the play’s funny physical gags. However, his character was as flat as a cardboard cutout. Dan is established as a deceitful womanizer by Philo before the play even starts and rides this one-sided characterization up until the final moments of the play. His lines give nothing away but his confusion and panic at the unravelling of the many lives he has built. We learn that he is a practiced liar and a master sweet-talker but any real motivation for his actions, any inkling of nuance or meaningful development with this character never really occurs. There is one moment where, opposite his Guyanese wife (played by Kala Neehal with unhinged glee and infectious energy), there is a glimmer of darkness as a possible pregnancy is brought to his attention. Schneider’s sudden looming presence, his imposing stature becomes acutely noticeable. Will he demand an abortion? Will he become violent? None of that happens as the moment is short lived and the curtains fall back on Dan’s character before we can get much more than a fleeting peek behind them.
He does receive his “just desserts” at the end of the play, but again, there isn’t any real change. We know that he’ll be punished before we see the play. The play’s program telegraphs the plot, telling us that at the end, Dan is “penalized for his indiscretions.” From the start we know that Dan’s secrets will be revealed at some point and he’ll get in trouble. That means that the onus is on the characterization, the dialogue, not the plot to make the play interesting and captivating. However, the script never seems to fully take advantage of the great mass of talent that has been accumulated on stage. There is instead a dependence on over-acted reactions and physical gags that really only do so much for the play as a whole.
Leslie-Ann Lavine’s “Sharon” is the only character that achieves a bit of intrigue by the end of the play. She played what the audience was supposed to intuit as the main wife. She was the classy one, the first one we’re introduced to, and the most mature person in the play. Her big reveal at the end made me reevaluate her role as the clueless and loyal housewife. What I had been reading as unbelievably naïve became a performance within a performance by Lavine; she had been deceiving the deceiver. Her delivery as she confronted Dan was the best piece of acting of the night for me by far. Lavine was fierce, formidable and unyielding, all with an underscore of bitter sadness. She reveled in the victory she had claimed in the marital games that were afoot. That is, right up until the script undermined all of this with its next predictable reveal and had Perry (Andrew Friday) walk on stage.
I can’t fault the actors’ performances for the lack of impact. I felt their dedication to their characters and their commitment was the source of much humour and enjoyment. Andrew Friday was delightful as Perry as he ran through his assortment of poorly faked accents and old lady costumes, acting as the only meaningful force that drove the plot forward. His digs at the man that he was supposed to be helping were hilarious and crafty bits of dialogue that shone through the script. Kyle Richardson as “Petunia” was also delightful. Domineering, intimidating and convincing, his performance in drag was spectacular and memorable.
Speaking of parts that worked, having Philo as the play’s narrator; a sort of one woman greek chorus if you will, was a delightful choice that played very well. The audience ate up the banter and gossipy commentary on the play’s events and characters that she provided. Even though she was down with the flu (a flu called “the budget” according to her), she played it for laughs and handled the audience with practiced ease during the breaks in the action of the play.
For the most part, Dan the Travelling Man was a funny romp that had many shining, hilarious moments based in stellar performances. With such an incredible ensemble cast (two Cacique Award winners!), good acting is a given. The script, on the other hand, often felt slightly lackluster in parts, leaving so much comedic and dramatic potential unfulfilled.