canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Red Mango: a blues
by Charles Tidler
Anvil Press, 2001

Reviewed by Richard Stevenson

Billed as a one-man play about a "single celibate sensualist" who lives for the sweaty joy and sensual contact on the booming dance floors of Victoria's blues clubs, Red Mango is not a play in the conventional sense of three-act narrative. It doesn't follow the Freytag triangle pattern of initial conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement, or take us through set-up, confrontation, and resolution in the manner of a modern stage or screenplay. Rather, it is a sequence of dramatic monologues that plays off the conventions of the typical twelve bar blues tune.

The design is minimalist: a table and two chairs, some room to dance, a scrim, and a small stage for a single blues guitarist. Charlie, an educated middle class man in his late forties, is down on his luck. Unemployed, living on credit cards, and recently jilted by his erstwhile girlfriend, like the protagonist in one of B.B. King's blues laments, he ain't too proud to beg for her return, but hedges his bets against the sweaty, funky T and A of the crowded dance floor. He's all but given up on love but follows his cock nonetheless, hoping against hope, he'll at least get his end wet occasionally, if not meet the woman of his dreams.

"Everything exaggerated is trivial," he announces in the first monologue, quoting Camus and trying to sublimate the various yips and moans of his hedonistic self in the ferocity of the dance. Sometimes he meets a woman friend or sidles up to a friendly smile or luxuriates in the sensual perfume of the women who flirt with him. Sometimes there is a rendezvous over coffee, or the flirtatious promise of the back door man's assignation, or a one-night stand. A kind of romantic everyman figure, wandering lonely as a cloud of blue smoke, Charlie tries hard not to care, but like the peripatetic sympathetic male friend with a shoulder to lean on and ears to listen with, he has a lot of platonic relationships and dalliances but can't quite connect with anyone in particular. He loves women - the way they look, the way they smell, the way they move - and he loves the blues, whether that be the Chicago guitar and horns of Junior Wells or the lonely acoustic delta finger picking of John Hammond.

The blues are the soundtrack of his life, at once celebratory in their victory over despair and profoundly sad in the hollow ravening cry of the notes.

It's not difficult to imagine the meandering improvisational dialogue with solo guitar that Charles Tidler had in mind and presumably got from guitarist Harris Van Berkel when the play premiered at Victoria's Belfry Theatre in April 2000, though, of course, it would have been nice to listen to a CD of the monologues to musical accompaniment, and one hopes that Charles Tidler will eventually have the resources and opportunity to take the play in this direction.

In the meantime, the script is suffused with blues poetry, full of earthy slang and vernacular wit and humour, erotic metaphors and double entendres:

... The crowd is so thick we can hardly move. Tammy drifts away, and the sudden anonymity in the loud, dark, thick frenzy gives me an erection. I become one with the sweating beast of dance, anonymous strangers combining into one electric body of bumping and jumping up and down. The warm soft bump of breasts, like red mango, grazes arms and shoulders. ...

My ears are beehives. I am soaked in a downpour of my own sour sweat. The club is hot and stinks of sweetly-rotten sex. What a sewer of fun.

Tidler has published nine other plays and is a poet and spoken jazz artist as well. It certainly shows in the writing. The dialogue is as spare and laconic as Hemingway's, as poignant and telling as Carver's, and Charlie's voice is at once instantly recognizable and authentic.

The plot, such as it is, is episodic -Tidler riffs on a series of set pieces: protagonist on the dance floor, protagonist going for coffee, protagonist on the prowl, protagonist among friends, sharing a joint and afternoon wine. Like a blues CD with fifteen solid songs on it, however, each monologue gains depth from the careful juxtapositions and sequencing, so the text reads like a serial narrative poem with crisp, tight dialogue. I loved every minute of it.

Richard Stevenson's new book, _Hot Flashes_, will be out later this fall from Ekstasis Editions. He lives in Lethbridge, AB.







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