MR. SHI AND HIS LOVER

by Wong Teng Chi
English translation by Derek Kwan
Directed by Tam Chi Chun
At Tarragon Theatre, November 15-December 17, 2017

(L-R) Jordan Cheng (Shi) and Derek Kwan (Boursicot) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Restraint is one of the virtues in this interesting 75-minute piece of musical theatre from a Macau production group, but it is also a limitation. When Derek Kwan’s Boursicot (French diplomat in Beijing) stands slightly behind Jordan Cheng’s elegant Shi Pei Pu (cross-dressing opera singer and spy), the audience can almost feel his pent-up ardour for his Chinese lover.  In a subsequent scene, it is Shi’s turn (while wearing a Chinese opera diva’s long-sleeved robe) to stand behind Boursicot, this time with his hands holding his lover to his own body in a gesture of desire, bonding, and conflict-ridden interdependency. There is no raw, raging sex scene—only the nerve ends of carnality. Their story (first presented in Toronto for Summerworks) is not that of David Henry Wang’s Broadway smash from 1992, M. Butterfly, though it takes inspiration from the predecessor, just as it alludes to Puccini’s classic Madam Butterfly without faithfully recirculating its oriental stereotype. In Puccini, Cho-cho san is a geisha, a quintessential Western paragon of Japanese women, and her suicide (after her betrayal by the American Pinkerton) is of a form conventionally associated with Japan. In Hwang’s play, the central figure is male, representing a rejection of the stereotypical Asian woman, but Gallimard, the French diplomat, who falls in love with Song Liling (the transvestite Butterfly), represents the Westerner’s desperate belief in the Oriental stereotype. Mr. Shi and His Lover elects to tells its real-life story in “an imagined space” that is a sort of prison to Shi who feels desperately alone while searching for a new ending for his ruffled, suffering lover but especially for himself. Boursicot has given up everything for him but has not found true happiness, though he claims to know what happiness is. Perhaps it is because he subscribes to Oriental stereotypes of the feminine beloved as Lotus Blossom or Oriental Beauty. Certainly, Jordan Cheng’s slender, graceful, androgynous Shi is as delicate as a flower blossom and as beautiful, and he knows how to maintain a fiction about ideal femininity. But he has an inquiring mind, and Wong Teng Chi’s fable unfolds like a love-drenched reverie in Shi’s mind and in which Boursicot is compelled to wonder if he has fallen in love first with a man and then with an impersonated woman.

There are many other tangential themes—lies, politics, history, ideal and fantasy—but they are all assimilated by notions of performance. Everything is seen in terms of performance, whether it is Shi’s ritual of making up, crossdressing, singing, or delivering monologues and dialogue. The mandarin dialogue is given English sur-titles, but sometimes the text is top-heavy with abstract concepts that seem to clash with the predominately sensuous score—a fusion of lush Chinese and Western operatic arias and Chinese folk music (sensitively rendered by Njo at the piano and Yukie Lai on percussion). The score could stand on its own, and there are plans to record and release it on a CD, with, I suggest, a booklet containing the lyrics in English. Yet I don’t want to suggest that the score steals attention from the story. It is beautiful, artful, moving, yet wonderfully controlled.

The restraint extends to the scenic, costume, and lighting design as well. The set is simply a dressing stand with mirror and opera costume and a small red rectangular carpet is flanked upstage by the two musicians. Shi and his lover wear Western suits, emblematic of cosmopolitan colonization, and the lighting is never obtrusive. The actors perform without resorting to any operatic flourishes, though the volume and modulations of Shi’s spoken text and sung lyrics give Jordan Cheng more beguiling colour and range than Derek Kwan enjoys as his perplexed, frustrated lover. Being specially trained in music, Cheng handles his solos with stunning virtuosity, sliding from high, plaintive or playful falsetto to sharp seductiveness or angry defiance. But the solo arias and spoken monologues are not enough to enhance theatricality, and the question-riddled dialogue adds an unnecessary burden to the acting. Consequently, the characters don’t come fully to life often enough, with the piece remaining more a mental drama than a fully fleshed play. I wanted more eroticism, and I wanted to know how Boursicot must have truly felt about either being duped by Shi or willingly maintaining a fiction about love and identity.

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THE GOAT OR, WHO IS SYLVIA ?

By Edward Albee
Directed by Alan Dilworth
A Soulpepper Production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts
November 1-18, 2017

Raquel Duffy (Stevie) and Albert Schultz (Martin) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Martin is a 50-year old architect at the peak of fame (the recent winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize), married to Stevie for twenty-two years and empathetic towards his gay son Billy. But Martin worries about memory loss and acts detached during a television interview with his oldest friend, Ross, who is really the smug embodiment of liberal hypocrisy, especially when Martin’s confession about his love relationship with a goat (the Sylvia of the title) is brought into the open early in the plot. Ross can abide adultery only so long as it does not involve bestiality. In other words, he doesn’t mind the idea of cheating on a wife, but doing it with a goat is another thing—an attitude that in itself sounds reasonable enough. But Albee isn’t writing about bestiality per se. His play seems to be about the uncontrollable nature of human sexuality and the complications that ensue from what is regarded as taboo sex by conventional society. Despite the black humour (an amalgam of savagery and anguish), the play is filled with grief and rage as it boldly investigates the confrontation between “unspeakable” desires and social norms and laws. It zeroes in on love, loss, betrayal, and its violent ending brings most of the characters down, while offering what is supposed to be a catharsis of fear and pity.

I have now seen three productions of Albee’s controversial play, starting with the Broadway original starring Mercedes Ruehl and Bill Pullman (the best version I have ever experienced), but each time the play grows more dissatisfying to me. Part of the reason is that each successive production seems to lack the power and finesse of the first, but an equally strong reason is Albee’s own muddled text that creates an unresolved problem of emotional incredibility and arch didactic self-consciousness. In an essay in 2004, Albee revealed he had set out to write a play about “intertwined matters—the limits of our tolerance of the behavior of others than ourselves, especially when such behavior ran counter to what we believed to be acceptable social and moral boundaries, and our unwillingness to imagine ourselves behaving in such an unacceptable fashion—in other words our refusal to imagine ourselves subject to circumstances outside our own comfort zones.”  His play would construct itself “as an idea, informing me that that’s what I intended to write about” in a kind of “unconscious didacticism.” Well, nothing was really “unconscious” because what eventually resulted, after an aborted first attempt with a totally different plot, context, and set of characters, is what we now have as The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? that (as its title implies) mixes a bit of Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, black humour, and Albee’s own idiosyncratic epistemological inquiry that mixes absurdist farce with dark pain. There is much word-play about bestiality (allusions to a feed store, a stall with bedding, cruising livestock, and a possible joke about Billy the kid) as if Albee had suddenly turned into a raunchy stand-up comedian, but such humour seems calculated as if the playwright is anticipating cynical audience jokes and is intent on beating the audience to the punch.

In ancient Greek, tragos meant “goat song,” and there was inevitably a scapegoat. Albee works in every allusion to classical Greek tragedy he can think of—from references to the Eumenides and sacrifice—as well as forced and unconvincing phrases (“tragic mouth,” for example) and an apocalyptic finale of destruction and self-destruction. Then there is the Shakespearean reference to the pastoral song from Two Gentlemen of Verona, in which beautiful Silvia is silent—just as the goat in Albee’s play, with Martin’s representing her swain (urban rather than rural in this case). But this creates a fundamental, unresolved problem. Albee is writing provocatively, pushing a text as far as he can go deliberately, but more from the head than from the heart, and actors have to find a way to reconcile both head and heart without appearing to be theatrical abstractions or allegorical figures.

It is a difficult proposition that Alan Dilworth’s production fails to present in an emotionally credible way. He and designer Lorenzo Savoini impose a large scale with the set: clean but rigid straight lines, high walls and roof, austere chairs and white table. But classical tragedy isn’t achieved by this type of scale: characters themselves have to be enlarged as if some invisible force were lifting them out of a mere human scale and propelling them towards a destructive climax. Savoini’s design satirizes white suburbia (as in his costumes that seem to suggest the 50s or 60s) but is largely an empty space that the cast does not always populate with believable or affecting characters. Instead of becoming a dark, painful void, the space remains just a space, with the white living room table remaining just that rather than an altar of sacrifice, even when Stevie dumps the slaughtered goat on it. Dilworth also stresses literalism more than he does the figurative for the murdered goat is shown almost fully rather than concealed in a bloody body bag the way it was in the original Broadway production.

But, ultimately, a lot depends on the acting. The figure of Ross is created to score didactic points about hypocrisy and betrayal rather than to be a fully fleshed friend, and Derek Boyes’s performance is, as usual, life-sized but is not allowed much intrinsic weight. As the gay, angst-ridden son, Paolo Santaluccia is almost creepily rigid and weepy, his tight fists usually closed, his voice and acting unable to grow beyond their first rudimentary levels of signification. Raquel Duffy has her best dramatic role to date as Stevie, the betrayed wife, but though she looks beautiful in high heels and elegant dress, and runs the gamut from mocking humour to rage, disillusionment, and grief, she does not have enough scale and gives away too much at the beginning, thereby failing to grow in vulnerability and terrifying revenge. When she smashes art objects in a venting of rage, she merely tears her passion to tatters, rather than incarnating deep victimhood. Her wails of grief and rage are howls that don’t seem to issue viscerally. They are enactments of loud fury. Albert Schultz is physically large in height and weight, but he enacts Martin externally, his defensive bent-over posture repeated too often. His final explosion is far less moving than is his warm understanding of his anguished son. In other words, I didn’t feel viscerally moved much at the end of the production, so it seemed as if the poor goat had died for little.

BAT OUT OF HELL (The Musical)

Book, Music & Lyrics by Jim Steinman
Directed by Jay Schieb
A Mirvish Presentation at the Ed Mirvish Theatre
Opened October 25, 2017

Bat out of Hell has an absurd plot, largely ridiculously cliched characters, boringly repetitive but energetic choreography, an ensemble of mainly posturing performers where posture or whine or grunt or roar is confused with acting, and some remarkable special effects. Confetti cannons shoot out silver tinsel, a banquet table converts into a pink convertible car that crashes slowly into the orchestra pit and sends some of the musicians scurrying out of it, and a largely static motorbike explodes, sending its parts flying into the air to form an iconic heart that floats above an anti-hero who rubs blood from it all over his bare chest. These are, no doubt, the moments and effects that younger generations will remember into middle age the way their parents probably cherish memories of a crashing chandelier, an underground secret lake, dancing jellicle cats, or an American helicopter hovering over the stage from their most treasured Broadway musicals.

Enduring the two-hour-forty-minute show (including intermission) is a test and a trial, except for (and this is a mighty exception, indeed) Jim Steinman’s music and lyrics that run the gamut from tribal rock to tender love ballad to pop diva arias and stunning blues. For the most part, the songs are very well sung, especially by Andrew Polec’s blond, bare-chested Strat (leader of a never-aging band of teen underground rockers aptly called The Lost), Christina Bennington’s raven-haired Raven (teenage daughter of filthy rich tycoon Falcon with his own Trumpian tower, though minus the gold furnishings), Billy Lewis, Jr.’s Jagwire (one of the more memorable denizens of The Lost), and Danielle Steers’s Zahara (a busty, long legged beauty with a voice as melodiously sexy and grainy as Cher’s). The last two share a wonderful duet entitled “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad,” which, alas, is not how I would score this production.

Trouble is that Jim Steinman (the great song-writer and lyricist) also did the book, which is about as silly a rock libretto as could be imagined. Obsidian (formerly known as Manhattan) is the dark city of this musical’s fiction, and it is apparently divided into the vulgarly rich (the Falcos, who seem to have no neighbours) and the vulgarly low (The Lost who never age beyond 18). Jon Bausor’s set design is massively Wagnerian in a 21st century punk rock manner (replete with dark cave, tunnel, and huge overhanging wooden beams) offset by the richly grandiose Falco Towers, where security thugs are in black leather, and where virtually every act in every boudoir or room is videotaped live. It’s Trump’s reality T.V. without the orange-haired scumbag, though Falco is a scumbag of a different type: he’s usually bare-chested, wears a scar, tattoos, and nipple rings, and walks around with a bat covered with barbed wire. In one scene, the Abu Ghraib of Obsidian where The Lost are tortured in orange jumpsuits in a large cage, he belts out “In the Land of the Pig, the Butcher is King” He is evidently a former rocker who is off his meds. Rob Fowler, who plays him, is as coarse as the role. His wife, Sloane, is played by Sharon Sexton, and she lacks entertainment by her mister, at least of the raw, carnal sort. She spreads her legs invitingly, tumbles over a sofa in a lubricious display, but the actress has a nice way with throwaway wit. Well, the lady’s not fully a tramp, and she does get her all-out moment of lyrical eroto-mania by way of auto-mania with her old man in the number “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”

Andrew Polec (Strat) leads The Lost

The main thrust of the musical can be summarized as follows: teen rebel with a cause loves teen gal, loses her, wins her again, but loses a younger male teen devotee named Tink (evidently cursed with an obsessive gene and an even more perverse nickname) in the process. Shades of Hair, Peter Pan, Rent, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and who knows what else. But the devil is in the bad details. How is Strat able to penetrate Falco Towers and slip into Raven’s bedroom without being detected by heavy security thugs and surveillance video? Are Falco and family doing their own version of Gene Simmons’s Family Jewels reality television series? Why do teenage hard rockers fall so easily into a line dance with limited movement vocabulary? And why after an age of Glam Rock are they all dressed perennially for Halloween or a bargain-basement version of Hair or Rent?

The songs, as I’ve said, are wonderful.

THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT

By Jean Giraudoux
Directed by Donna Feore
At the Tom Patterson Theatre. Till September 24, 2017

Seana McKenna (Countess Aurelie) with members of the company (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

While it is too long for the fable it spins, Giraudoux’s comic fantasy is witty, whimsical, and wise, and Donna Feore’s colourful production, though unable to find a single unifying style for it, attempts to mask the languid sections by rapturous humour and a sort of light, romantic unreality created by Teresa Przybylki’s set and costume design and Kimberly Purtell’s lighting. Peter McBoyle’s sound design serves up a little “jazz hot”—relic of a vanished Paris. Giraudoux wrote the play in the early 40s, during WWII, probably to sound notes of resistance to the enemies of France and its heights of culture and civilization. The title character, Countess Aurelie, is thought to be mad because she lives in a world of tattered fantasy, still pining for a long-lost lover. She certainly has lady friends (each from a different district) who could be certifiably mad: one (Constance) clinging to a droll fantasy of a pet dog that is always invisible to everyone; another (Gabrielle) looking like a rouged doll in ringlets, ribbons, and bustle, who hears voices from her hot water bottle and eagerly awaits an imagined suitor; and a third (Josephine) who, despite her rational knowledge of law, keeps waiting insanely for a parade that never comes by. Their scene-a-quatre in Part 2 plays with delightful delirium like something out of Alice in Wonderland, but the essential point of the play is that despite these women’s mad fantasies, the world has changed dangerously for the worse, because (according to the Ragman, the voice of rag-tag wisdom) “little by little, the pimps have taken over the world.” Greed is dominant and people are publicly worshipping the golden calf. When this dire news is brought to Aurelie, she devises a miraculous plan to rid the world of these parasites. Her plan involves making love the one decent motive for living: this plus Giraudoux’s magic literary wand that summons up a fantasy solution that comes full blown in this production with smoke and a farcical parade of victims.

Giraudoux’s play will undoubtedly remind some of Saroyan’s old-fashioned romantic and sentimental humanism, but Giraudoux’s is, perhaps, more sophisticated, though also far wordier (new English translation by David Edney). Set at first in an airy café in Chaillot (a district of Paris), where a President, a Baron, and a Broker meet to hatch a plot to make even more money (a plot creating a fantasy of oil under the streets), each rapacious man given the floor for a monologue, the play sets up its conflicts plainly. The greedy ones against the world of little men: waiter, peddler, juggler, press agent, police officer, kitchen girl, handyman, sewer worker, deaf woman, street singer, lifeguard, street musician, etc. The cast shines in these disparate character-sketches, led by Ben Carlson’s brusque, rude President who rails against the assorted “little” people for being puppets. Actually, he has a point: Giraudoux’s play revels in the very strings it manipulates to control the characters and thereby lead them to his pointed conclusion.

There are wonderful comic contributions from Cyrus Lane as a pragmatically helpful Sewer-Worker, and Gareth Potter as a Lifeguard who can’t swim and therefore saves only those drowning only on land, while Scott Wentworth makes a notably ruminative, cynical Ragman. Antoine Yared as Pierre and Mikaela Davis as his beloved deliver tender romance, but the most engaging performances come, not unexpectedly, from the madwomen: Kim Horsman as canine-obsessed Constance; Marion Adler as wispy, prudish, aging doll Gabrielle; Yanna McIntosh as legal-minded Josephine; and, of course, Seana McKenna as Aurelie, though she doesn’t make as much of the eccentricity as she could. But there is more diverting comedy than weighty drama, and I could have done without Wayne Best in a handlebar moustache and black cloak that he twirls like a villain from silent-screen melodrama. The final confrontation between Aurelie and the villains is treated as broad farce, devolved from Marx Brothers zaniness but lacking their freewheeling genius.

TARTUFFE

By Moliere
Translated by Ranjit Bolt
Directed by Chris Abraham
At the Festival Theatre. Till October 13, 2017

Maev Beaty (Elmire) and Tom Rooney (Tartuffe) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Although you would never know it from Chris Abraham’s wildly raucous and coarse version that is about as low as low farce could go, Tartuffe is a high comedy about arch hypocrisy and other human foibles. Moliere and his play ran afoul of the Church and even, to some appreciable degree, Louis XIV. The best version I ever saw (in Richard Wilbur’s superb English translation) was Jean Gascon’s, in which the incomparable William Hutt gave one of his greatest performances as the title character who dupes the master of a bourgeois household by displays of false piety. Gascon had an almost unbeatable cast, all of whom seemed to be marvellously suited to their roles, and Gascon had indisputable Gallic flair as director. Chris Abraham has a few strong actors in his cast but Abraham is a populist director with a finger on the pulse of fads and manners, and sometimes his work is highly engaging and intelligent—as in his staging of The Matchmaker and the central comedy of The Taming of the Shrew. However, his version of Tartuffe is re-contextualised far from France, beginning (for no sensible reason) with a loud wild party in progress (called “an orgy in Babylon” by the imposing Mme. Pernelle) and then later showing us a Tartuffe who strips down to his very underwear. While this is undeniably caviar to the general. it is poison to those who favour wit, sense, sensibility, and style.

Tartuffe is not, of course, the most important character. Thank goodness, for even in this wayward production, Tom Rooney’s bizarre interpretation of the role as a sort of latter-day Rasputin with long, oily locks and a black jacket over a black cassock, who has trouble with English pronunciation as well as the verse rhythms that he slows down as if in need of an ESL instructor, doesn’t hold a candle to Graham Abbey’s exceptionally funny and vulnerable Orgon, a man with blinders on, even though he is in peak physical condition as he races up and down Julie Fox’s two-storey setting (contemporary chic with modern appurtenances), makes himself espresso and smoothies, performs push-ups, and makes a certifiable ass of himself by worshipping his false idol who has oiled his way into his trust, guardianship, and generosity. Abbey is also one who knows his way with Ranjit Bolt’s jaunty mod rhyming dialogue that dares to be vulgar in the showiest contemporary vein, making audience and Moliere feel “fucked” all the way down to the denouement. Another sterling verse-speaker is Rosemary Dunsmore as Madame Pernelle (Orgon’s mother), a tempest of disgruntlement who earns a great laugh when she complains aggressively “May I be heard?” after her mighty gusts of grievances. And a third (sleekly sexy, to boot) is Maev Beaty as Elmire (Orgon’s much-tested wife). As her clear-eyed, pontificating brother Cleante, Michael Blake also has moments of gleaming articulation, as does Rod Beattie as officious Monsieur Loyal.

Apart from losing the French flavour of the play, and making a mess of many scenes—none as much as the attempted seduction scene, where the designer’s living-room furniture affords the most improbable hiding-place for Orgon to overhear his false “idol’s” hypocrisy—director Abraham fails to harmonize his cast, or, at least, to temper many of the outrages performed by Anusree Roy as Dorine, the saucy maid. Unable to negotiate the verse with any semblance of real impertinent wit, Roy is guilty of the worst excesses of Bollywood, with her incessant eye-rolls, and flamboyant overacting in which virtually every corporeal extremity appears to be in motion, whether warranted or not.

Director Abraham continues his acknowledgement of the modern age—or, at least, of North American vulgarity—by the very pointed allusions to the disgusting blight of Trumpism. All good for easy laughter, but the production exposes some of the worst aspects of Abraham as director. Instead of illuminating Moliere’s great satiric comedy with very dark undertones, this production revels in being a simple, silly fable that is unbalanced, unconvincing, and vulgarly conceived. It is certainly a crowd-pleaser, as Trump has been for his rabid base. But as recent events have shown, a crowd-pleaser can cause a nation to lose its collective mind, let alone its taste.

STUDIO OFFERINGS AT STRATFORD

THE KOMAGATA MARU INCIDENT
by Sharon Pollock.
Directed by Keira Loughran.
At the Studio Theatre. Till September 24, 2017

THE BREATHING HOLE
by Colleen Murphy.
Directed by Reneltta Arluk.
At the Studio Theatre. Till September 22, 2017

Kiran Ahluwalia as Woman  in “The Komagata Maru Incident” (photo: Lynda Churilla)

Sharon Pollock’s The Komagata Maru Incident is based on an egregious racial incident in 1914, when a Japanese freighter carrying 376 Sikh immigrants from India was not allowed to dock in Vancouver by government officials because they came from the Third World and were not of acceptable colour, religion, language, and way of life. After a seven-week standoff, the ship returned to India, leaving behind only 20 passengers who proved that they had former residence in Canada. Pollock’s nobly intentioned original was set (inexplicably and sensationally) in a brothel, with an incongruous circus atmosphere created by a Master of Ceremonies dressed as ring-master. The playwright used documentary facts but sought to create a theatrical impression, using dramatic license and compressing time and place.

Director Keira Loughran has tried to make something new of the play, but has lost her way both in history and in theatre. The background story of Gurdit Singh Sarhali, the Sikh who devised a way of testing Britain and Canada’s immigration policy, is left shadowy, and by incorporating Chinese and First Nation characters in a bid to enlarge the issue of Canadian racism, Loughran has made the play diffuse and fuzzy in focus. Audiences are somewhat compensated by a free brochure that fills in historical details, but Pollock’s play (that certainly has historical significance) and Loughran’s treatment create problems. Quelemia Sparrow is an attractive lady who is beautiful both in her indigenous garb (at the outset) and in her circus jacket, top-hat, and boots, but her movement and dance choreography is rather insipid and her vocal performance low energy. Instead, it is left to Jasmine Chen and Diana Tso (as two Chinese ladies of unsavoury suggestion), Tyrone Savage (as Georg, the German-born ally of Immigration Inspector William Hopkinson), and Hopkinson himself (Omar Alex Khan) to provide dramatic and comic sparks, though the most enchanting performance is that of Kiran Ahluwalia as the unnamed Woman who is the only visible East Indian passenger. Pollock has admitted to not having represented any male Sikhs because of her lack of knowledge or direct experience with one at the time of the play’s creation.

Ahluwalia is a beautiful singer with dulcet tones that modulate to fine melancholy, and her economy of gesture have real allure, but she is forced to narrate what the playwright has neglected to dramatize. Moreover, the production seems to be unaware of its own self-sabotage. By having a First Nations woman serve as Emcee, the production turns one historical victim into an ally of the racists. And why is the English translation of the Sikh woman’s songs made to sound like pidgin English? Presumably the Sikh poets and balladeers knew how to form complete sentences in their own language, and this English translation is reprehensibly condescending, patronizing, and false. Moreover, did no one attempt to correct the misimpression that Sikhs are Hindus—a fallacy that is voiced in the script?

Where The Komagata Maru Incident loses dramatic impact and focus because of its flawed attempt to heighten cultural resonance of absent characters, Colleen Murphy’s The Breathing Hole manages to keep its course and gain power despite spanning centuries and having a puppet-polar bear as its main character. Angu’juaq is first seen as a mewling, abandoned cub saved from death by an old Inuit woman, Hummituq (Jani Lauzon), herself starving and abandoned by her family, but a visionary who looks into the black water of the breathing hole to see into the future, predicting eventually the arrival of the Erebus and Franklin’s expedition and a new concept of time. When first discovered, the bear is a clever hand puppet that is utterly charming, though restricted in its movements. However, as it grows into an adult (masterfully created with wood and cloth by an Inuit team, and controlled by Bruce Hunter), it rivals anything seen years earlier in War Horse. As it hunts seals at a breathing hole, ruthlessly hooking its powerful jaws onto its victim and raising it out of the water, it seems massively dangerous, and yet it has vulnerability, even delicacy, as it is subject to human whims and foibles. Indeed, just as a mask can often overtake an actor, this puppet appears to become almost human in its “feelings,” and because the main thrust of the play is a tragic history of human greed, wastefulness, and ruin, the figure and role of this bear is enlarged to symbolic proportions.

The play spans a vast stretch of Arctic history, beginning with a sort of exotically romanticized primitivism in 1534 as the old woman, in contrast to the others in her small community who feel full and satisfied from their hunt, howls with unhappiness. No wonder she takes ardently to the cub, caring for it as one of her own children. Later, the actress appears inside a second (adult) bear, Angu’juaq’s mate, and as the centuries pass, carrying us into the fatal end of the Franklin expedition of 1847, the didactic thrust of the play grows stronger. This section has earned critical disapproval in some quarters because of its highly charged satire aimed at the British explorers and scientists who find themselves ravaged by nature and left to die from starvation and cold. But this section is filled with interesting character sketches by the likes of Randy Hughson, amusingly eccentric yet dignified in his own right; Thomas Mitchell Barnet, Jamie Mac, and Victor Ertmanis as various crew members; and Juan Chioran as an interpreter who eventually goes mad.

The final section (set in future decades of the 21st century) takes us into the whole issue of environmental destruction by Western capitalists, but the playwright eschews being laboriously didactic by comedy of manners and a satire of technologies. Several of the actors who played natives in the initial sequences turn into despicably careless, heartless “whites,” living it up on luxurious Northwest Passage cruise-liners that litter the ocean with their garbage and pollute the world with their rampant consumerism. This is where Angu’juaq’s story reaches its tragic climax, and the final scene with the bear gasping helplessly as it drowns in an oil-slick ocean crystallizes the conflict between cultures, and that between human brutality and nature’s integrity.

Angu’juaq (Bruce Hunter) and Huumituq (Jani Lauzon) in “The Breathing Hole” (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

The Breathing Hole has a beautiful soul that transcends its intrinsic flaws—such as the urge to romanticize and sentimentalize the indigenous, or the undeniable necessity of suspending our disbelief at the bear’s existence in a huge time span. It has been given an utterly appealing non-naturalistic scenic design (Daniela Masellis), excellent costumes (Joanna Yu), extraordinary puppets, lighting of ineffable Borealis effect (Itai Erdal), and signature sound composition (Carmen Braden). The interplay between Inuit actors and some of Stratford’s best company members (under the direction of Reneltta Arluk, who has had extensive experience with Indigenous communities across Canada) is heartening and moving. This is a landmark collaboration between the Stratford Festival and Inuit artists that should become a continuing relationship, for in this our 150th year as a nation, it is time for our Inuit artists to tell their own stories in their own voices.

AN OCTOROON

By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Peter Hinton
At the Royal George Theatre. Till October 14, 2017

(L-R): Ryan Cunningham and Andre Sills (photo: David Cooper)

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, that debuted in New York’s Soho Rep in 2014, is a play-within-a-play, or, perhaps, three plays in one because in addition to being a reaction to Dion Boucicault’s classic melodrama, The Octoroon (note the subtle difference in titles), that debuted in 1859, it incorporates some of that play’s material after a fulsome prologue in which a black actor (Andre Sills), wearing nothing but briefs and representing Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, pours out his anger and pain in a theatre dressing-room in a sort of self-described therapy. BJJ resents being unable to revive Boucicault’s play without resorting to political correctness. As he slathers his face with white makeup, he plays Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz on a ghetto-blaster, multiplying the stereotypes as they play one against the other. Sills performs his monologue with admirable force before he is attended by his “native” dresser (Ryan Cunningham, who is really a First Nations actor) wearing a black T-shirt with the phrase “Merciless Indian Savages” emblazoned on it. BJJ is joined by a drunk stage Boucicault (Patrick McManus) who resents having been forgotten by the theatre world. McManus sounds and acts convincingly Anglo-Irish and drunk.

Eventually, BJJ stages his version of the Boucicault melodrama, while playing a dual role: George Peyton (newly arrived from Europe with the benevolent intention of saving his dead uncle’s Terrebonne Plantation in Louisiana from financial ruin) and M’Closkey (the dastardly racist and sadistic overseer who devises a plot to take over everything, including the slaves, among whom is beautiful Zoe (Vanessa Sears), the octoroon of the title). Among the other slaves represented in the DB version are Dido (Lisa Berry) and Minnie (Kiera Sangster), who make a very entertaining double-act in a rap song. Boucicault’s original play was all about breaking taboos, and BJJ’s play-within-a-play attempts a similar provocation, while following the general contours of DB. Regarding the interracial theme, Zoe falls in love with George, who is pursued by Dora (Diana Donnelly, who is brilliantly funny in her affectations), and who even contemplates marrying wealthy, lusty Dora in order to save the plantation and slaves.

The significant twist to affairs is the racial coding. BJJ plays both hero and villain in white face, while DB (McManus) is in red face as he portrays Wahnotee, a noble, alcoholic “injun” (a double stereotype!) and the real Indigenous actor adopts black face as he plays an ingratiating black youth and an old, shuffling slave-as-household-servant. Sills performs quick changes in the dual roles, helped by facial makeup and costuming that combines white and black like two halves of an uneasy whole. In one quick bravura episode, he even gets to fight with himself.

Boucicault’s original play is truncated in BJJ’s presentation. Indeed, its plot is dramatically foreshortened, as if, it seems, to allow director Peter Hinton to exercise flights of his own imagination, some of which are brilliant but others of which are laboured or undeveloped or even unnecessary. The final act, for instance, is staged brilliantly, as Gillian Gallow’s wooden set is deconstructed or collapsed, although BJJ does not stage either the murder or the trial dramatized by DB. On the negative side, although Hinton introduces a human-scale Brer Rabbit on the fringes of action, he never really develops that creature’s significance as a trickster.

Ultimately, then, an audience’s response to An Octoroon will depend on how well it deals with the disparate tensions in this production: the playwright’s contact with and departure from Boucicault’s original; the friction between classic melodrama and post-modern didacticism; the playing of racial stereotypes one against the other; and Hinton’s embellishments that are not necessarily coherent or clear, as well as Jacobs-Jenkins’s tendency to overwrite. What is undeniable, however, is the real BJJ’s power that flows from a heart that demands our confrontation with incredibly rancid, outrageous black and white history in America. Given current events and realities in the abominable Trump regime, there is urgency about the matter.