Ngozi Paul and Ashley Wright get ready for some serious Krapp. Photo courtesy of the Canadian Stage.
In the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen season debuts from a lot of the theatres in town. But probably the most hotly anticipated were Blasted at Buddies and Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter: An Attempt at the Truth at the Canadian Stage. Both are directed by their company’s new artistic directors (Brendan Healy and Matthew Jocelyn, respectively), and inaugurate the first season each has programmed for their theatres. In many ways, these productions will set the tone for these new regimes. More than plays, Blasted and Fernando Krapp will be read as mission statements, indicating the new directions these companies are travelling in.
The good news? Neither are safe choices. Blasted is a Sarah Kane play (and anyone who’s experienced the late British playwright’s work can attest that it is the antithesis of “safe”), while Fernando Krapp is a quasi-Absurd piece by German writer Tankred Dorst, translated by Jocelyn himself.
You’ve got to hand it to the Canadian Stage for getting ahead of a joke. The day Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter opened, they sent “protestors” around the city with placards that read “Live Theatre is Krapp” (maybe confusing some into thinking they were canvassing for Rob Ford?), and buttons bearing the same message were handed out at the jam-packed entrance to the Bluma Appel Theatre later that evening. So we could hardly run the headline “What a Load of Krapp!” and feel very original. And that’s OK, because we wouldn’t have wanted to say that anyway. But you’ll notice we also didn’t go with “Best Krapp We’ve Ever Had!”
The eponymous letter is written to Julia (played by Da Kink in My Hair‘s Ngozi Paul), “the most beautiful woman in town,” informing her that she is to become Mrs. Fernando Krapp. She writes him a saucy, pseudo-feminist response, and just when we think we’re settling in for a Taming of the Shrew–esque battle of the sexes, Julia tells us in an aside that she marries him anyway. And we never really find out why. There are strangely elided moments like this in Jocelyn’s script (which, we must remember, is an English translation of a German adaptation of a Spanish folk tale, which may explain some of the stilted dialogue and “huh?” transitions), where a situation rife with drama is hastily skipped over without explanation. It’s interesting, sure, but it’s not always satisfying and, particularly later in the show, it starts to feel like a huge narrative cheat. As the story unfolds, we see Julia and Fernando’s bizarre (and very manipulative) marriage unfold, including the birth of a child who is immediately forgotten about, and an almost-affair with a Count (Ryan Hollyman) that somehow lands Julia in a psych ward. It’s all a bit like Sally Clark’s Moo.
What the Krapp does this mean for CanStage? Well, for a place that’s become famous for recycling Broadway hits and movie adaptations, it’s exciting to see something so non-commercial (almost willfully so) open the season, especially at a larger one of their venues. And Astrid Janson gives the affair a lovely design (I think most of the papers have already spoiled a brilliant surprise involving a falling polar bear).
But we were disappointed to find the play itself, well, a bit of a snore. And part of this is because it never seems to decide on a tone. You can’t help but imagine the actors feel the same way too—usually brilliant performers like Hollyman and Paul seem absolutely lost, running back and forth across the stage willy-nilly. Is it a farce? A love story? A black comedy about emotional abuse? A satire? An out-of-left-field final sequence featuring falling roses and the sincere (we think?) use of an adult contemporary ballad doesn’t help to clarify. Still, it’s cool to see something this weird at the Bluma, and it kicks off one of the company’s most exciting seasons in memory, featuring work by Peter Hinton, The Electric Company, and Robert LePage.
David Ferry is about to get Blasted. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.
Trying to claw your way through the crowd to the media table in the Bluma Appel’s vestibule on an opening night might prompt one to mutter the phrase “theatre of cruelty,” but you assume the discomfort is accidental. At Buddies, however, the entire experience of seeing Blasted is specifically designed to make you as uncomfortable as possible, and this starts with entering the theatre space. Instead of coming into the Chamber through the building’s main entrance (like usual), you’re told to wait at the bar until an usher walks you around through the back alley behind the building. The adaptable Chamber space has been made very small indeed, and you sit facing a big black wall with a square cut out of it where, diorama-like, a highly realistic hotel room has been created.
Enter David Ferry and Michelle Monteith as Ian and Cate, an excruciatingly inappropriate couple. He’s an abusive, older alcoholic who carries a gun and is not particularly interested in the concept of consent. She’s an epileptic young woman with unspecified learning difficulties who has somehow convinced herself that she’s safe with this dangerous man. Audrey Hepburn bangs and an androgynous, child-like style of dress only makes Cate appear more helpless and fragile. But Kane’s pitch-black script doesn’t allow for a simple victim-aggressor reading. Cate repeatedly makes the choice to stay in the hotel room, and after Ian inevitably rapes her, she lashes out violently before locking herself in the bathroom. And it’s how you react to what happens after this that will determine whether you appreciate Blasted as a work (“enjoy” is not the appropriate word), or dismiss it as the Daily Mail famously did when it premiered at the Royal Court in 1995 as a “disgusting feast of filth”.
Without explanation, a soldier (Dylan Smith) bursts onto the scene. Cate disappears, and Ian unwillingly transforms from predator to prey. The soldier tells Ian terrible things, and then does terrible things to him, while an apocalypse appears to be raging outside. It’s almost a best-of compilation made up of the goriest bits from Titus Andronicus and King Lear.
Watching Blasted is a traumatizing experience—to the point that we feel we should warn those who suffer from PTSD or are abuse survivors that the show may be triggering. Even transitions between scenes, during which the audience is plunged into darkness and subjected to some of the most deeply unsettling atmospheric sound design we’ve ever heard, are enough to leave one green around the gills. How do we interpret these atrocities? Is everything that happens after Cate leaves some sort of deranged, black-comic fantasy? Or, is it a grim and gritty parable that anticipated post-9/11 Homeland Security paranoia? Or, is it sadistic and joyless pornography; a “feast of filth”; 120 Days of Sodom without the fun?
We suspect it’s probably a little of all of the above. Kane began writing Blasted while still a student, and she was not yet twenty-four when the work opened at the Royal Court. While her genius is evident, there is something a little juvenile (and dare we say a little theatre school?) about the play’s excesses, particularly the final tableau, which recalls at least two different Beckett plays.
One thing is for sure: any qualms one might have about Blasted have got to be script-related, because Healy’s production is just about flawless. The cast, particularly the ridiculously talented Monteith, is exceptional. The staging and design are fantastic—a sort of inverted, evil twin of last season’s Breakfast, with its hyper-realistic set that gradually becomes anything but. Opening with a show like this makes a serious statement about the direction Buddies is traveling in, and it matches what Healy has been saying in interviews and press materials: Queerness/Otherness as necessarily avant-garde; work that is drastically different than the mainstream in both form and content. It’s a message that’s not entirely reflected in the rest of the season’s programming, which features an awful lot of remounts and familiar faces, but it will be very interesting to see how it shapes the theatre in years to come.
Blasted runs at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre until October 17.
Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter runs at the Bluma Appel Theatre until October 16.