Montreal Fringe: What About Albert?, A Mini Essay

Not everyone is lucky enough of having a workplace that’s at least a smidgen enjoyable, as evidenced in The Malicious Basement Theatre Company’s What About Albert?, written by Xander Chung. The plot follows a day in the shift of two part-time workers, a grill sergeant named Pod (Jordan Prentice) and fry cook named Pick (Fanny Dvorkin), in the hell-scape of the fast food chain they work at. Pod is the quirky but insolent worker who sees the meaninglessness of what he believes is a crummy part time job and constantly expresses his resentment towards management while Pick on the other hand, foils Pod; obedient to the bureaucracy of the workplace and worships the manager even when they’re not physically present.

The show’s description states it’s a “Godot inspired fever dream”, however, Jean-Luc Godard is who immediately came to mind while watching; the play feeling profusely influenced from the French new wave genre. In the post-war world of the late '50s, French new wave directors felt that cinema at the time was lacking in humanity and depth, so they decided to forego all the normative film conventions by focusing on the mundanity of life as a form of resistance, but also as a mirror of the underlying emptiness and despair within society. This skepticism also permeated within the philosophies that are entrenched in French new wave films, such as existentialism. The use of colour is also a notable convention of Godard’s films, utilizing vibrant primary colors to contrast said mundanity of life. In What About Albert? Chung specifies the use of color a little more intricately; the only pops of color being the bright yellow and red uniform Pick and Pod wear or the red food wrappers that blanket the floor against the grey monotony of the rest of the setting.

It’s the play’s absurdity that makes it an effective 21st century interpretation of a Godard film. Absurdity works as a double-entendre in the play, as the word denotes a branch of existentialism that expresses the tension of life being meaningless as it cannot be backed by rational thought, as well as denoting a type of surreal humour. Scholars argue that we have moved from postmodern times, to metamodern times; a combination of modernism’s stride for authenticity and meaning, melded with postmodernism’s cynicism that believes the strive is fated. And through the metamodern lens, absurdist humour seems like the perfect coping mechanism. The play’s premise recognizes Pick and Pod’s Absurd circumstances, their story trudging on but albeit with a humour that assuages their existential qualms.

Absurdity manifests ubiquitously in the play, from characterization, setting, dialogue and even movement. Take the clownish face-paint that Pick and Pod don. Against the base of white face-paint, Pick has frowned eyelids and eyebrows while Pod has sunken red eyelids.  I couldn’t tell if their clownish face paint was a part of their uniform or a meta, non-diegetic insert meant to satirize the folly of their condition—of most people’s condition. Ensuing with absurd motifs was the workplace telephone: everyone fears the moment it’ll ring as someone will have to be the one answer it but in the play, the telephone prop used was a kiddie phone; an example of the subtle yet evocative comedy of Chung’s play. Or the clock, for instance. Instead of a ticking, real clock, in the play it was transformed into a  yellow, cardboard cut-out, with hyperbolic arms that didn’t move once; signifying the seemingly never-ending time that Pod hopes will quickly pass. Even Pick and Pod's movements were exaggerated, and watching them move about felt like watching a stop-motion, Tim Burton film come to life; the grimly undertones fitting for the underlying horror of the Absurd.

But when the clock does eventually tick, and Pick tells Pod, “that’s it, you’re done [your shift],” the play’s comedy only fades to being solely nightmarish. Everything on the set gradually disappears as Pod is left to speaking out into the void, of what’s become of him; of what his life really means when he isn’t a grill sergeant. Pod is made to descend into delirium, and he becomes exactly how Pick was at the beginning of the play: obedient to the workplace, and perceiving his uniform as an inseparable constituent of his identity. The lights then slowly dim on him.

While everyone feels the meaninglessness of life dawn from time to time, I appreciated how the play spoke about the facticity of working class circumstances, from a genuine place. The contrived absurdity of the play did not detract from the play’s overall heart.

Although Montreal's Fringe Festival sadly comes to an end until next year, you can keep up with what The Malicious Basement Theatre Company is up to here!