Art’s Art: Arthur Holden’s “serious farce” Ars poetica

Playwright Arthur Holden
Photo: Nicolas Seguin

Like the characters of his delightful farce, Ars poetica, Arthur Holden is interested in the choices people make. He himself, after law school, made the decision not to work as a lawyer but to devote himself to acting and, more recently, to writing. The law would have been a lot more lucrative, but Holden responded to the call of Art. Which may be the perfect subject for a playwright who answers to Art.

Hugh Rose (Howard Rosenstein) is a respected and prosperous lawyer who cannot imagine why his daughter Naomi (Elana Dunkelman) spurned the air-conditioned luxury of the job he could have swung for her and is spending her summer as an intern in the sweltering offices of the virtually bankrupt magazine Ars poetica.

Naomi is a talented young poet in love with poetry and, not a little, with the magazine’s rascally and lascivious publisher George, who calls all his lovers “Precious.” Hugh, who is being asked to provide the financial support she needs to study in New York, scoffs at the magazine that publishes the poetry of English Montreal, which is “a functional definition of mediocrity.”

One of the first plot twists in this well-constructed play is George’s revelation of an accomplished Petrarchan sonnet that Hugh himself wrote in 1979 as a young man with literary aspirations much like Naomi’s. George may be a rascal – he and Hugh are pretty evenly matched when it comes to sleaziness -- but he does have literary integrity. Director Guy Sprung calls Ars poetica “a serious farce, because it’s about the value of art and poetry." The beauty of it is, in fact, that Holden takes literary quality seriously even when he cannot resist poking fun at it. So it is George’s “sense of honour” that prevents him from publishing the work of any woman he is sleeping with.

With his penchant for a female escort who charges $300 an hour (and calls him BAD BOY), upstanding Hugh is a substantial comic character, and Rosenstein plays him with panache. Noel Burton is credibly world-weary, alcoholic, and debonair as George, and Danielle Desormeaux note-perfect in her broadly comic role as Diane, the anxious and libidinous Canada Council officer. There is some nice stage business as George goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid Diane, leaving a trail of champagne in his wake. The comedy extends to bedroom farce – Diane is not only George’s Precious, but his Preciosa – and their tryst in his office is interrupted when a furious Naomi bursts out from under his desk.

One-liners hit the mark just about every time. Julia (Paula Jean Hixson), the magazine editor – is an illegal immigrant who fled Vermont after setting fire to a police car. “Arson,” she says, “is surprisingly therapeutic.” George describes a glass of champagne as “liquid laughter” and as “a mimosa minus the orange juice,” while Hugh expresses scepticism that “a magazine in English in Montreal should need an editor AND a publisher.” One of the poets published by the magazine lives in the “deep South Shore” in Greenfield Park, which is “practically in Alabama.”

There are one-worders, too, and fine comic timing. Diane coyly admits to being “forty,” and skips a beat before adding, “two.” The very name of Julia’s hometown, Winooski, gets a laugh. And the magazine’s system password happens to be “Ars,” a word not only appropriate for a magazine called Ars poetica, but one best appreciated when enunciated roundly not in lofty Latin but in earthy Anglo-Saxon.

Several plot twists later, Hugh turns out to be the lawyer with the heart of gold. The magazine is saved, Julia will get her immigration papers, and Naomi not only gets to go to New York, but she will now (no longer being Precious) have her work appear in the magazine for the first time.

This is a fun play, in other words, and a satisfying play, ably performed and directed at a clip by Guy Sprung in this excellent Infinithéâtre production.

It’s a very Montreal play, too, with its audience-pleasing local references and quotations from the work of several Montreal poets (Anne Carson, Mary di Michele, Endre Farkas, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Erín Moure, David Solway, Carolyn Marie Souaid, and Peter van Toorn) along with the likes of Petrarch, Blake and Keats. Poetry is everywhere in Ars poetica: projected (along with text messages to BAD BOY) on to the walls of Veronica Classen’s airy set design, sung (by Leonard Cohen), and incorporated into onstage dialogue.

Arthur Holden is a playwright to watch. His next work, quite literally in the Pipeline (Pipeline is the name of Infinithéâtre's reading series, where the play was read on December 11, 2011), is The Book of Bob.

At the Bain St-Michel, 5300 St-Dominique, Montreal, to February 12th.

$20 ($15 seniors & students); pay-what-you-can Sunday matinée Jan 22.

Tel: 514.987.1774, ext. 104;

© Linda Leith 2012

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