David Ferry’s deceased author Gordias Carbuncle is an imagined muse to Liisa Repo-Martell’s academic Vivian Ezra as she obsessively edits and promotes his lost masterpiece. Photo by Monica Esteves.
At the start of playwright Anton Piatigorsky’s Eternal Hydra, currently being remounted by Crow’s Theatre at the Factory Theatre, elitist academic Vivian Ezra (Liisa Repo-Martell) appears in the office of a prestigious publisher (Sam Malkin), with a massive manuscript under her arm. She has a treasure, and she knows it; it’s the long-lost (and only) copy of Gordias Carbuncle’s Eternal Hydra, a legendary book with a hundred chapters that supposedly tells the history of human civilization from the perspective of the marginalized.
Ezra will do anything to see that the book, which she has been obsessively researching and editing for years, is given its proper due as a literary masterpiece; she’s so wrapped up in her blind devotion to the book and its almost-as-mythical author that she’s willing to overlook evidence that there may have been other, silent contributors to Carbuncle’s epic. When the publisher offers to promote the book as a package deal with another author’s historical fiction novel, she, fiercely possessive of Carbuncle’s manuscript, strenuously objects: “Eternal Hydra is a masterpiece!” “Yes,” he retorts, “but is it any good?”
David Ferry’s appearance as the late Carbuncle, almost as legendary for his rakish demeanor as his unfulfilled role as a literary genius, sets the tone for his endlessly multi-faceted character right off the bat; he appears to Ezra as a muse of sorts, advocating for his novel, and devastatingly describing Malkin’s publisher as a carbon copy of his greedy and self-important father: “A second edition, akin to a golem.” We see Carbuncle through several characters’ eyes throughout the play, but while he subtly varies depending on the narrator, he’s charming, witty, and ruthless in all versions. As the layers are peeled away, it becomes clear to us that while he’s supremely confident in the value of his great work, he’s also filled with self-loathing at his own willingness to do whatever it takes to see his book become the great work he envisions—which may include appropriating others’ stories and writing.
The cast is uniformly excellent; not all get the same opportunity as Ferry to dig into such a truly unique character, but they convincingly play multiple roles in different time periods. Of particular note is Cara Ricketts, who joined the production at a late date. Her Pauline Newberry, the historical fiction writer who’s the first to suspect that Carbuncle has used others’ work to augment his Hydra, is a determined character; she becomes a formidable adversary to Repo-Martell’s brittle and narrowly focused Ezra.
Concerns that the previous production, staged so effectively in 2009 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, might not translate as well to the much larger Factory Theatre Mainspace have been effectively addressed. A thrust has been added to the stage, and John Thompson’s lighting and set, including a wooden “ceiling” that helps give the play the intimacy it deserves, have kept the actors and their close-in scenes from being reduced by the void.
It isn’t an exaggeration to state that Piatigorsky’s fascinating script is one of the very best new Canadian plays in decades; it ranks right up there with Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched (recently filmed as Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies and nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar) for its complexity and the abundance of questions it raises. Chock-a-block though it may be with intriguing ideas, it’s quite funny at times, and straightforward and swiftly moving in its development. Primarily, it’s a play about authorship, and whether it’s more important to see a story told than it is to give credit to the source. Carbuncle’s tome gives voice to those who would have no voice otherwise, but his guilt at misappropriating those voices may very well lead to his self-destruction, and stymie the fate of his novel.
A final note, and an especially important one, given the topic of Eternal Hydra: the trailer for the play (embedded below), a rarity in theatre, and still rarer for its slick and effective production, has been widely praised. It even prompted a busy discussion on the Praxis Theatre blog of how a good video can help a theatre production. But some have wondered who made the video; the director and production company aren’t credited on the YouTube clip or the Crow’s Theatre website. It’s the work of local video house Leslieville Production and Post, who should be commended for helping sell such a challenging and important work to a wider audience.
Eternal Hydra runs Tuesdays–Saturdays at 8 p.m., with PWYC Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., until February 13 at the Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street), $23–$40.