I’ve never thought too much about the English Canadian film industry, specifically the Canadian Feature Film Fund. I’ve got the NFB app on my phone and once watched some shorts while delayed in an airport. I have a long-standing dispute over the verity of Project Grizzly. In terms of feature films, after checking out the Wikipedia’s list of Canadian hits, I’ve certainly seen some of the English films (Porky’s! Meatballs!) and of these… they were forgettable. Perhaps The Envelope’s playwright Vittorio Rossi is right – in contrast with its haute French counterpart, English Canadian film is largely ignored by audiences. Its competitive equal is the low-budget indie American industry.
The Envelope is a roast of the Canadian Film Fund, only this roast isn’t held by loving colleagues, but delivered as a pointed invective wrapped in a hilarious satire. Our hero is a gifted, artistic director Michael Moretti (Ron Lea) with 12-stage-plays and 7 unproduced screenplays under his belt. On the eve of premiering his latest stage oeuvre and signing a contract to make an indie film using the same cast of actors, he receives a devil’s offer: a six-million dollar envelope.
As the play explains, an envelope (and I’m as ignorant about this process as the octogenarian next to me) is a promise from the Canadian Film Fund that it will back a film from a specific producer. It’s a sealed with a kiss promise that smacks of corruption, and Rossi makes certain to mention the (cough) differences between this process and that of Quebec’s construction industry. All in all, it’s a sweet deal for Michael. It’s enough money to step up his project on every level. Once the producer gets his cut, and aside from whatever conditions are imposed from the Board itself, the film need not be good, nor profitable, nor distributed, nor seen. Slick producer Jake (David Gow) adds some Nutrasweet when he assures Michael that he will remain director and avoid development hell.
Michael spends much of the play questioning if he should chase the money and its reshaping by government bureaucrats or take the plunge into the high-risk of unfettered artistic freedom with an untested L.A. indie producer. On balance, the problems of indie film-making are not shouted quite so loudly, save for a mention that countless indie films are launched into obscurity. Other problems are implicit: limited to no distribution, unknown names and less experience at every level, running out of money and resources halfway through. Overall, an indie film is a lot of energy and time invested into something that may never get seen past the odd film festival.
Nonetheless, the journey to Michael’s ultimate decision is a solid two and half hours of entertainment that builds on its initial dilemma. The play flies by, joke after joke, pointed comment after pointed comment. No one is left untouched, even we hated critics (don’t worry, I think we can take as good as we give… you can leave your comments about Montreal Rampage’s failings below and I promise to read each every one). Some complaints about the industry are exactly what I expect and it’s delightfuly sinister to hear them voiced.
I think one of the great strengths of the play is that it takes on a challenging subject matter: the perils of taking government funding for the arts. A certain amount of explanation is necessary and Rossi does this without being pedantic. Sure, in most industries there a certain amount of dull apism and clichéd, unthinking analysis, but now I know what directors and scriptwriters hear from their bureaucratic overlords: “More locations” and “Open it up.” I don’t know much about Rossi’s specific run-ins Canada’s film industry, but it takes cahonas to bite the hand that sometimes feeds you (fed you?, might feed you?). Then again, who doesn’t love being made fun of?
The actors are cast spot-on. A few lines are delivered a bit sluggishly, but everyone was riveting. Lea and Gow have an element of subtlety in their performances, making Michael more contemplative and Jake seem (at times) sincere. Sarah (Leni Parker), the Film Board bureaucrat in charge of script development is magnetic. The best scene has Michael explaining to Sarah and Jake how Sidney Lumet transformed the stage play 12 Angry Men to the screen by creating multiple locations.
The three “actors” and restaurateur Franco function as a charming Greek chorus. All the best lines go to restaurant owner Franco (Tony Calbretta), but there’s nothing to dislike about the wise man whose only worry is to serve good food and keep the alcohol flowing. Explosively passionate Marcello (Guido Cocomello), Royal-Shakespearean-styled Andrew (Shawn Campbell), and first-time-on-the-boards optimist Caroline (Melanie Sirois) capture a typology of actors with enough personality to keep them sparkling. Rossi uses them to express his thoughts on various aspects of a life spent performing. “Your only goal is to serve the text,” declares Andrew. Here, here!
The Envelope is a solid production and strongly recommend. Rossi has a well-tuned sense of how to create drama, how to craft a scene, how to create likable characters, how to pace a show. Everything about this show is stellar and it proves a far better way to spend 2 ½ hours with the Canadian film industry than 99.99% of the films out there.
The Envelope runs until April 19 at the Centaur Theatre (453 St. Francois Xavier). Click here for tickets and showtimes.