It’s almost the end of the beginning for Ken Gass’s new company, Canadian Rep Theatre—the Toronto theatre stalwart’s highly anticipated return to the director’s chair after his now-infamous firing from Factory Theatre in 2012—as its inaugural production prepares to close this Sunday. With the establishment of Canadian Rep Theatre, that particular saga has come to an end (meanwhile, the watered-down renovation of Factory he lost his job over is wrapping up too, and it looks like a TTC station), and Toronto theatre audiences will get to see new works from playwrights Judith Thompson and George F. Walker—works originally programmed in that ill-fated season at Factory Theatre that moved with Gass when he built a new professional home for himself.
Kicking off the season is another name on par with Thompson and Walker: Wajdi Mouawad. Although Mouawad is known best for the drama Scorched, which was adapted into the Oscar-nominated Incendies, Gass brings us one of his lesser-known plays, Pacamambo, originally written for young audiences. Pacamambo is also about endings, or rather, the most final of endings: death.
The up-and-coming Amy Keating plays Julie, a headstrong and very vocal tween, whom we find at odds with her psychiatrist, played by Karen Robinson. Robinson has apparently been trying for months to get a traumatic story out of her patient, who finally relents and opens up just as she was about to give up. Along with the psychiatrist, we watch Julie’s story unfold: while at a sleepover with her grandmother, Marie Marie (Kyra Harper), and her dog, Growl (Michelle Polak), Marie Marie dies. Angered by the loss, Julie takes Growl and Marie Marie’s body to a storage locker in the basement of the building, where she stays for about three weeks waiting for Death to return so she can give it a piece of her mind. “Pacamambo” refers to the utopia that Marie Marie has told Julie about, where everyone feels empathy for everyone else, where “you choose who you are.”
Mouawad certainly doesn’t let young audiences off easy—the language is extremely poetic, the story is surreal, and Julie is a fierce character who delivers some very enlightened speeches about social norms, prejudices, and race. Though she sometimes get lost in her words during her most passionate moments, Keating absolutely does the role justice. She gives Julie an agency and an intellect that match the tone of Mouawad’s script, which asks its young audience to appreciate the themes of the story and not simply the plot. Michelle Polak is also a standout—her Growl is physically impressive, but also manages to pull off comic relief without being slapstick. The moral of the story is straightforward and beautiful, but the journey to get there is not exactly child’s play.
However, there are certain elements of the production that keep it from hitting a home run. In an awkwardly staged death scene, in which The Moon steals Marie Marie’s spirit away through an open window, Gass has Harper grasping onto her bed, which has been propped up vertically. The intent is apparently for her to appear as if she’s floating, but instead she’s uncomfortably contained in one spot without the use of her hands. That and some other odd spacing choices offer very little sense of the space the characters are occupying—a sense that could have helped ground an otherwise dream-like story.
Ken Gass is 100 per cent back on the theatre scene, and the history of Canadian Rep Theatre has yet to be written, but at the very least, this is an intriguing first chapter.