All the World's a Film Set

A Wake ★★★★
(Canada, 93 min)
Dir: Penelope Buitenhuis; Story: Penelope Buitenhuis and Krista Sutton
Starring: Graham Abbey, Tara Nicodermo, Sarain Boylan, Martha Burns, Kristopher Turner, Krista Sutton, Raoul Bhaneja, and Nicholas Campbell.
If all the world’s a stage, then it must also be a film set. That seems to be the premise of the DV-shot drama A Wake, in which a cast of characters assembles to perform a farewell for their great director (think Rachel Getting Buried). That director is Gabor (Nicholas Campbell), a reputedly visionary artist on both the Canadian and International stage circuits. Following his sudden death, his widow, Hanna (Tara Nicodermo), complies with his final wishes and summons the most crucial members of his acting troupe to bid him adieu at their country estate in snowy Cambridge, Ontario. Naturally, Gabor’s passion was Shakespeare, and his thespian mourners have immersed so much of their lives in the Bard’s verse that it seems they can’t express themselves without a script. If only life could imitate art. 

In addition to the strong, but grief-stricken Hanna, the party seems particularly Shakespearean: there’s Tyler (Graham Abbey), who was crowned the new acting king following his brief stint in Hollywood; Danielle (Sarain Boylan), his drug-addled Queen, who also has a past with the dead king, Gabor. Keeping Danielle in line with an acerbic-tongue and a watchful green-eye is Sabina (Martha Burns), the only non-actor of the company, but someone with whom Gabor spent endless hours going over the business end of things. Finally, there’s Emma (Krista Sutton), a waify Ophelia-type who floats on karma and good vibes. The actors on the funereal call sheet suggest that the one play that Gabor never got to stage was Hamlet. As with Shakespeare’s play, the Ghost sets it all in motion from beyond the grave.

As the members arrive and share their condolences with Hanna, and in turn, each other, they reopen old wounds. (The group dissolved during their original preparations for Hamlet many years ago.) The tensions reach their climax, however, with the late arrival of two more faces: Chad (Kristopher Turner), Gabor’s son, who, much to Hanna’s horror, arrives home unexpectedly early from his backpacking trip in Europe. Chad is understandably outraged to come home only to discover that his father is dead and that his home is full of hysterical actors. Further crashing the party is the group’s own Hamlet: Raj (Raoul Bhaneja), whom Gabor requested despite the fact that it was he who caused the demise of the group. (The film explains it all in good time.)
Once tempers and egos cool down, Hanna assembles the cast around the dinner table and gives them their direction. They are to reminisce about Gabor and she will film their testimonies and display them at a later public memorial. Despite some reservations, the cast agrees to pay their respects. Once the cameras roll, however, the stories veer upon stagy and dramatic. Their eulogies are sentimental and fraught with self-effacing contradictions – is it not Hamlet that also bodes, “And every word a lie?”
If the characters at first resemble rigidly defined types, that is understandable. Do not forget, these are all actors, and what do actors do when they assemble? They assume a role. A Wake thus works brilliantly on several layers of performance: these are actors playing actors playing roles. They’re also staging a play before Hanna’s camera, whose viewfinder constantly foregrounds the drama. Additionally, Buitenhuis’s film goes entirely unscripted – the actors improvise all the dialogue. They riff off one another marvellously, and that becomes the great artistic accomplishment of the film: it’s a feat of actors acting. The cast inhabits the roles extremely well (both their character roles and their ‘meta-character’ roles). Burns and Nicodermo are certainly the standouts of the film – Burns has some especially fine moments towards the end – but the synergy among the ensemble fresher than that of any production rehearsed ad nauseum.

“I thought we were doing theatre, not film,” one of the cast members quips prior to the reading of Hamlet. A Wake, however, treads the fine line between live and ‘canned’ drama. The self-reflexive framework of the film ultimately adds a fourth dimesion to the performances. As a result, the spontaneous interplay between the cast, along with the stripped-down form, ultimately saves A Wake from becoming overwrought melodrama. A Wake therefore explores exciting terrain in dramatic performance. As with most experiments, not everything works; Nevertheless, A Wake offers an original and darkly humorous film experience.

A Wake is currently playing in Ottawa at the AMC Kanata.