Diego Matamoros in The Aleph. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
The black box theatre is bare—a curtain is draped across the back, and a lone, grey office chair sits idly in the middle. It’s only on-stage companion is Diego Matamoros, a man dressed plainly in brown slacks, a neutral jacket, and glasses, who enters while the house lights are still up, without any announcement other than his singing at the top of his lungs, to no one in particular. For the next 85 minutes, he tells a story. A personal story. One that, he admits, we may or may not believe. It’s as simple, and complex, and mystifying as that.
As the latest course in the theatrical feast that is Soulpepper’s 2011 season, Soulpepper co-founder Matamoros, iconic Canadian director Daniel Brooks, and renowned designer Michael Levine favour the straightforward over the stuffy with The Aleph—part of Soulpepper’s new One-Act Gems series. Inspired by the 1949 short story of the same name by Argentinian magical realist Jorge Luis Borges, the collaboration of these three men is a foolproof recipe for fantastical yet relatable—read: exciting—theatre. The Aleph is a short but rich mixture of their combined years of theatrical expertise, using simplicity as a platform on which to highlight their individual strengths in storytelling and design, while leaving room to play with reality and make-believe, the serious and the absurd.
Premiering as part of Soulpepper’s LAB series of new works last year, The Aleph returns after a year of polishing, weaving together Borges’ concept of an aleph, a point simultaneously containing all other points, and Matamoros’s personal story of being a young theatre school grad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Living with his mother and stepfather in Toronto, Matamoros decided to spend some quality time with his semi-estranged diplomat father, the ambassador of El Salvador in Argentina. In one summer spent in Buenos Aires, Matamoros fell in love with his cousin’s fiancée, only to learn of her death when he returned a year later. In yearning to see the photos of her kept in a tiny drawing room in her house, he takes on her cousin, nicknamed El Maestro, as a sort of artistic mentor despite the fact they can’t stand each other. However, his relationship with El Maestro turns when the mad Maestro reveals to Matamoros that his theatre contains an aleph, a portal that reveals the entire universe to the viewer at once.
Up until this point, Matamoros’s story was rich in reality, beginning by passing out copies of his first headshot as a professional actor and revealing personal details about his relationship with his woman-loving father. But this abstract addition moves the matter into surreal territory, adding another conceptual level to the issues Matamoros explores: memory, youth and aging, disappearance, love, death, and the omniscient power of an actor. It’s jarring, perplexing, and completely enjoyable to decide how far down the rabbit hole we can follow him and suspend our disbelief.
The 85-minute monologue is, naturally, expertly performed by Matamoros, despite containing himself to the swivel chair for most of the performance. In fact, he’s actually at his most captivating while seated, reciting a speech by El Maestro that rants about the symbolic significance of a man in a seat—just another moment of the theme of self-reflection. Obviously, Matamoros is no stranger to the material, but when it nears the edge of thoughtful plot and crosses into mere autobiography, Brooks steps in with a keen sense of timing to introduce elements of Levine’s disarming design. The design at first appears disappointingly sparse, but reveals layer upon intricate layer as the play’s themes develop and we follow Matamoros into more surreal situations. Levine’s use of mirrors in particular is one of the more ingenious tricks we’ve seen in recent memory—arresting enough to elicit gasps from the audience, while adding thematic development to push it past the boundaries of a gimmick. Lighting by Kevin Lamotte also helps substantially to the subtle transitions from Matamoros’ soliloquies to the audience in the present and those taking place in his memories of the past. In the works since 2006, the time and detail that these three creators and longtime friends have put into The Aleph is obvious, and much appreciated.
Borges is known for blending fictional ideas and factual treatments in his writings, so much so that it’s not often obvious if his tales are true or tall. Borrowing from this style, Matamoros’ sincerity and honesty (or so we’re to believe) in his personal history makes the shift into fantasy near the end of the piece so convincing that it at first seems infallible. “A theatre, by definition, is a house of illusions,” he reminds us, as he explains the inevitability of a loss of memory, of “forgetting the unforgettable,” to the point where we begin to doubt our own concept of reality and fiction. Usually, we would find this infuriating, the level-headed realists we are. But somehow, in the hands of Matamoros, Brooks, Levine, and Borges, we’re more interested in the reality they create for us.
The Aleph starring Diego Matamoros and directed by Daniel Brooks is on stage now with Soulpepper Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill Street) at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Call 416-866-8666 or visit Soulpepper’s website for ticket and date information.