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'A Wake' has nice moments of revelation, but something's missing

A scene from "A Wake"

2 out of 4 stars


Ah, theatre people. Put them in an elegant sprawling farmhouse with some tantalizing unfinished business, enough copies of Hamlet to go around (but not enough bedrooms) and plenty of booze to stoke the drama, and the game is afoot.

But the improvisational drama A Wake, as you may rightly assume from its title, is a very different kind of cast party.

At some point before his fatal heart attack, retired director Gabor Zazlov (Nicholas Campbell) charged his wife Hanna (Tara Nicodemo) with summoning together specific members of his once-popular theatre company shortly after his death. When the guests arrive at his country abode one winter afternoon, old flames spark up, old rivalries surface and catfights erupt. By the time they assemble for dinner, we realize there's an elephant in the room - and I'm not talking about the closed casket that has been strategically placed for maximum effect.

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The film gradually reveals that a scandal, involving an unproved accusation, broke up the company four years ago during a production of Hamlet. Gabor's deathbed request that his guests also do a reading of the play (which does not go well, by the way) is, in effect, his final production during which truth will out.

Those who know Hamlet will spot some nods to the play. Before the party gets rolling, Gabor's son Chad (Kristopher Turner) returns home unexpectedly after a trip abroad. Not having been informed of his father's death, he suspects treachery on the part of Hanna. Later, he rescues (off camera) Danielle (Sarain Boylan), a dolled-up, coke-sniffing actress, after she runs from the house and tumbles into the pond.

The other "Ophelia" is Maya (an engaging performance by Krista Sutton), a single mom who has given up acting in favour of social work and meditating. The other "Hamlet" is Tyler (Graham Abbey), whom Gabor mentored and helped kick a booze habit, and who now works in Hollywood.

Rounding out the party are Raj (a subtle performance by Raoul Bhaneja), who lost the part of Hamlet to Tyler years ago and went to the media with the scandal that killed the company, and Sabine (the wonderful Martha Burns of Slings and Arrows), the company's judgmental patron who hides her unrequited love for Gabor in fierce loyalty.

Director Penelope Buitenhuis, who shows a sure hand here, has made several notable art films, but her track record also includes directing almost 100 episodes of Train 48, an improvisational soap about Toronto commuters that ran for a few seasons on Global. She conceived the story of A Wake with Train 48 regular Sutton, but the dialogue is created by the actors, who deliver purposeful ensemble work.

They stay on topic and offer some nice moments of character revelation, but something is missing: an understanding, on an emotional level, of why Gabor still has such a hold on them. We are told many things, but it's not the same as feeling them. And Hanna's awkward insistence on videotaping the gathering is not only a distracting, useless device but also telegraphs too clearly where the story is headed.

I would have liked to see a few more claws come out in the catfights, but at least A Wake is not too hammy - and that's saying a lot when you've got actors playing actors.

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A Wake

  • Directed by Penelope Buitenhuis
  • Story by Penelope Buitenhuis and Krista Sutton
  • Starring Nicholas Campbell, Tara Nicodemo, Krista Sutton, Raoul Bhaneja, Sarain Boylan, Martha Burns and Kristopher Turner
  • Classification: NA

A Wake opens Friday in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

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