Witness to a Conga and Other Plays

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September 11, 2012

Witness to a Conga and Other Plays
By Stewart Lemoine
Newest Press
206 pp; $19.95

Reviewed by Jenny Aitken

Stewart Lemoine’s most recent collection of plays demonstrates the comedic timing and wit that earned him the position of resident playwright at the Teatro la Quindicina housed in Edmonton’s Varscona Theatre. Over the past few decades he has written over 60 plays, yet his work remains poignant and fresh.

Published plays like these are crucial because they offer the reader and audience member a chance to appreciate the quality of writing as well as the quality of acting. Published plays also function as exemplars for students and aspiring playwrights to demonstrate that character, depth and humour can be revealed through dialogue.

The book begins with Happy Toes, a fast-paced comedy featuring five characters but focusing on two. Lemoine’s characters are cleverly constructed; there’s Edgar the middle-aged clarinet teacher with a crush on his bank teller, and his friend Alex, who fears he may be the “other man” in his relationship with Janine. The drama comes to a head during one of Edgar’s orchestra recitals, when a screaming match between Alex and Janine delivers the energy and pizzazz the orchestra lacked. “Happy Toes” is like your Uncle Alfred, quirky and even a little weird, but likable nonetheless.

As for the second play, The Oculist’s Holiday, I can see why it would be sandwiched in the middle. Set in Toronto in 1934, the story unfolds through Marian Ogilvy’s recollections of her vacation in Switzerland three years earlier. Although I appreciated the explanation of her position as storyteller – that she is a guest speaker at a graduation of a Women’s Business College – the monologues grew tiresome nonetheless. That being said, there was still humour throughout, as when Marian discloses information of her sexual encounters despite the “windmill gestures” being given to her by the college’s teachers.

The book closes with Witness to a Conga, truly saving the best for last. In preparation for their upcoming wedding, Martin’s fiancé Laura has asked him to prepare a list of people he wants to invite. Unfortunately, he can’t think of anyone. Told entirely from his perspective, this play chronicles Martin’s relationships with the people who have affected him most: There’s his now-deceased mother Eleanor, who left Martin’s father for another woman. We learn of his father Walter, whom he calls once every couple of years, and finally there’s Sheila, a former professor he probably shouldn’t still be thinking about. As Martin faces these “ghosts” from his past, he also must decide if he is the type of person who leads a conga, or someone who just sits and watches.

I found this book exemplified the quick and occasionally pointless manner in which we speak. Although the dialogue seemed random and unconnected at times, it worked because of the offbeat nature of Lemoine’s characters. Witness to a Conga and Other Plays is very much like a conga line – sure it may seem silly at times, but if you jump on board, chances are you will have a good time.

Jenny Aitken is a third-year creative writing and journalism student at the University of Victoria. She grew up in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, and has written for the University’s student paper, The Martlet, and for Boulevard Magazine.

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