The following review is a conversation between theatre critics Liam Donovan and Aisling Murphy. Both attended Necessary Angel Theatre Company’s production of Letters From Max, a ritual on opening night (Wednesday, November 15) at The Theatre Centre in Toronto.
The following is an edited series of letters between Liam and Aisling, written over email from November 16 to 19.
I feel it necessary to tell our readers that this idea of formatting our review of Letters From Max, a ritual as a series of correspondence was yours. I don’t think I’ve ever greenlit a pitch faster.
On opening night at The Theatre Centre, as we took in Maev Beaty and Jesse LaVercombe, and their bodies, and their voices, so close we could hear each breath and spot the flying spittle, I found myself drafting this letter, fidgeting, miming pen strokes with my dominant hand. Not out of boredom, quite the opposite — out of an urgent need to get pen to paper, and make sense of the space between my thoughts on Necessary Angel’s production and the words I might use to describe it in this review.
We’re no strangers to discussing plays, you and I, on streetcars, on iMessage, in bars. I’ve joked we live only steps away from each other (and in fairness, we do, but it’s quite a few steps). At Letters From Max, we laughed at the notion of ferrying this review down Woodbine, subjecting each other to bad handwriting and brisk walks. In another universe, reviews aren’t written to deadline, and perhaps in that other world we’re doing just that, a more analog approach to collective reviewing.
It’s a silly thought, but then again, Letters From Max is frequently a silly play. There’s an irony there, that this meditation on death and dying is so often delectably funny — I expect we’ll unpack that further as the next few days tick by.
I’ll leave it there for now. I look forward to the letters to come.
Yes — this is an email.
So too were the “letters” exchanged between American playwright Sarah Ruhl (Beaty) and her former student Max Ritvo (LaVercombe), a dazzling poet who battled Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of pediatric cancer. Their emails form the basis of Letters From Max, a ritual, as well as the similarly titled book Ruhl adapted it from (which I love, and have read multiple times).
I latch onto this distinction because the play suggests to me that what makes a letter a letter is the intention behind it. It’s important that Ruhl and Ritvo’s correspondence feels considered, not dashed off. Despite not having to pay for postage, they clearly revised carefully before pressing “send.” And though, as you point out, silliness and irreverence abounds, the subjects discussed tend toward the meaningful realms of art, philosophy, and religion. Through the many distractions of contemporary life, these two brilliant humans fought hard to slow down and connect.
You speak of “the space between [your] thoughts on Necessary Angel’s production and the words [you] might use to describe it.” I’m with you: this space, one we’re used to confronting as critics, here feels like a gulf. Though Alan Dilworth’s Canadian premiere production contains extreme beauty, it’s also disarmingly simple, driven largely by Beaty and LaVercombe’s electric presence, making it hard to pin down.
One last offer before I toss this letter in the digital mail. You wrote your master’s thesis on theatre criticism and its “fault lines.” Letters From Max is a deeply personal work for Ruhl and anyone else who knew Ritvo. How do you feel about approaching it critically?
A powerful essay written by Ruhl for Literary Hub in the aftermath of the play’s successful New York premiere this February gets at some of the potential difficulties. She writes that she added the subtitle “a ritual” during previews, out of worry that critics, with their “clinical gaze,” might not be able to watch the show properly: “Rituals call out for engagement… A stepping towards rather than back, an invitation to catharsis, which is impossible to have while maintaining critical distance.”
Did this production feel like a ritual to you? Do these letters?
You beat me to the chase, and I’m grateful for it — indeed, I’ve sat here, in the gaps between breaking news stories at my other job, toying with the headline for this thing we’re doing. “Letters From Intermission, a ritual,” is it, I think. Because that’s what criticism is, right? It’s making permanent the ephemeral, documenting movement and feeling through punctuation and line breaks. There’s something sacred in that — criticism affords immortality to gesture and voice, just as this play does for Ritvo.
And it’s ritualistic, too — for me, it’s the corner of the floral couch in my living room, a coffee growing more and more lukewarm as I write. (Though I might take Ruhl’s advice one day and convert my writing fuel of choice to soup — in the play, she makes the compelling argument that soup contains the answer to most of the world’s problems.)
You’re dead-on with the simplicity of the play, a sparseness that not once in its two-ish-hour-runtime made me wonder about budgetary or spatial concerns during the production’s development process. Dilworth’s production of Letters From Max employs two tables, some chairs, and a microphone stand as its talismans of physical permanence. (There are other things too, things to see but not touch — they’re better left undocumented here, though I found them disarmingly powerful in the play’s second act.) As the relationship between Sarah and Max blooms, then explodes, then calcifies, the objects around them become more abstract. We don’t need literal recreations of Sarah’s office or Max’s apartment or any number of poetry clubs and cafés — the specificity of this tale is in its language, and Dilworth’s made the smart decision to avoid cluttering the text with tangible gunk.
The text. The text. The text. The poems and the incantations and the prayers. No one needs us to wax euphoric on the standard of Ruhl’s word-wielding. But a two-handed play, composed of emails, poetry fragments, and dramaturgy of the self, could be lethal in the wrong hands, a gumbo of prose too muddled to enjoy. (It’s always back to soup, isn’t it?) No, here, the text is beautiful and followable, complex but not opaque.
In this text is a story — not a dramatization, nor an opportunistic reanimating of the dead — and in that story there is love. There is space. There is padding around the language in which we can breathe. Letters From Max is no slog. It’s a journalistic, theatrical documentation of love, in a container corroded by time.
Much to ask you: about this play’s place in the canon of documentary theatre, about your thoughts on Beaty’s and LaVercombe’s performances. I’ll let you pick up whichever thread is most compelling as I return to the foibles of Toronto’s traffic and transit.
You write on the couch! Fascinating. I think that would lead me toward drowsiness. My writing ritual involves getting up between paragraphs to play a couple minutes of Gershwin on the piano. And coffee, yes, yum.
Whenever I encounter Ruhl, I think of Ritvo’s description of her work as “so alive and flexible and bamboo-like.” All those adjectives apply here — but I found myself chuckling at the wood furniture you mention because it’s so chunky and un-bamboo-like, a heft that counterpoints the text’s spaciousness.
In Ruhl’s preface to Dear Elizabeth, her other play of letters, she writes: “I don’t believe the actors should ever pretend to actually write the letters. They are speaking the letters to each other and to the audience as though they are in the act of composing them.” A similar tack is taken in Letters From Max. Both actors speak the letters like ordinary dialogue they’re coming up with on the spot. When a construction was clearly laboured over by its writer, this spontaneous delivery feels delightfully odd, Shakespearean even.
Dilworth and Ruhl render Max’s verses as lively poetry readings. LaVercombe steps forward, grabs a mic, and channels Ritvo’s bouncy performance style. Epistolaries paint incomplete portraits because they can’t depict in-person events, but these performance sequences crayon in the empty space by tributing the way Ritvo publicly presented himself, kimono and all.
To your point about there being “padding around the language in which we can take a breath”: yes, yes, yes. This is a deeply spiritual piece of theatre, and nowhere is that more clear than the silences. Breath is connection, and Dilworth’s production invites us to inhale — to let the story into our bodies, our hearts.
At our seats, you revealed the dirty secret that Letters From Max is your first Beaty show. I look forward to hearing your take on her magical ways — how does she do it?
You’re right — until Letters From Max, I’d not seen Beaty act, a foul oversight on my part — but between fleeting exchanges over social media and email, I had a sense of what joy was waiting for me whenever I’d finally get the chance to change that.
And oh, the thrill of being right. In witnessing Letters From Max, all at once I heard Sorrel as documented by PlayME’s production of Bunny, and saw the lanky goof photographed in her recent Intermission Spotlight, and luxuriated in the presence of a brilliant actor emulating a brilliant playwright. I’m not particularly religious, but I think that experience might approximate church, the charismatic oration of text with that secret sauce of gentleness and verve.
Chemistry can’t be prescribed. The spark of oddly matched relationships is one we’ve seen swell into a blaze this year, from The Sound Inside and The Effect at Coal Mine to Letters From Max here. Student-professor plays have historically made me nervous but this one is different. There’s no sexual politicking here, no will-they-or-won’t-they queasiness. Yes, Sarah is Max’s professor, and perhaps their real-life relationship was one that bent boundaries, but it’s difficult to deny that the two as documented in their letters are entwined in the cosmos, souls incomplete without each others’ warmth and words. “I think sometimes you teach me, too,” Sarah tells Max, and for me, the tears came quickly.
To this end, LaVercombe and Beaty are impeccably cast. I can’t imagine a world in which any other two people could do this work. LaVercombe’s resonance and charm buoy Beaty’s more gossamer presence onstage, and Beaty’s ability to convey dorkdom cancels out the very occasional pretentiousness of Ritvo’s words as delivered to us by LaVercombe.
“Being dead is the most airtight defense of one’s own aesthetic,” writes Ruhl in her book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write. (Have you read? You should read.) I wonder if she thought of Max when she typed those words. I wonder the same when she points out in the collection that tragedies are named after tragic people. And it’s true, isn’t it? After all, these letters in the play aren’t just “from Max” — they’re from her, too.
Liam — at what point must this thrum of critical murmurs conclude? Have we covered the things we’re supposed to? Do we care?
I’ll be reading Ruhl on the subway to Tarragon tonight, methinks.
Gossamer presence! Wow, that’s exactly it.
We could rally 100 Essays quotes back and forth all week, I’m sure. It’s beautiful how these joint reviews grow in size so effortlessly. As Letters From Max reminds us, conversing about art is one of the great, inexhaustible pleasures of this life.
That’s one takeaway, but there are many others — days later, the show continues to reverberate in me, encouraging me to think deeply about how I spend my time and why. This is a play to hold close and never let go; to return to, in worship, with everyone you know.
The solution is probably to just never stop. Perhaps readers with a response to the show should write a letter in the comments section, and we can continue the conversation there?
Right now, I’m reflecting on Max’s response to a poem Sarah wrote for him. “Speechless,” he says. When she wonders how he means it: “Speechless only in the direction that it is one of the more moving things to happen to me in a while. You discern me, honor me… [I] just have to hold the poem up.”
Maybe that’s our ritual’s chant: Hold the play up. Hold the play up. Hold the play up.
Letters From Max, a ritual runs at The Theatre Centre until December 3. Tickets are available here.
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