Cruel and Tender marks Atom Egoyan's highly anticipated return to theatre after an absence of more than 20 years. But Martin Crimp's unusual play is bound to leave some audience members perplexed.
These days, Greek is chic. At least, it is in the theatres of Toronto. At SummerWorks last year, we had two different takes on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, as well as a musical version of Hero and Leander. The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood’s feminist revision of The Odyssey, is currently burning up the stage over at Buddies in Bad Times. And now the Canadian Stage Company—who only this past November brought us choreographer Marie Chouinard’s version of, you guessed it, Orpheus and Eurydice—has brought us a new production of UK playwright Martin Crimp’s 2004 play Cruel and Tender, which is, of course, a post-911 meditation on Sophocles’ The Trachiniae.
And why not? The Greeks knew drama. Hell, they invented it in its Western iteration. Stories about war, murder, betrayal, family, journeys, sex, politics, and revenge never really go out of style. So it’s hardly surprising that Crimp (also chic in Toronto these days; we just saw his translation of Genet’s The Maids at Buddies last fall) wanted to turn The Trachiniae, which chronicles the troubled marriage of Hercules and his wife Deianeira, into a modern story about a bored housewife waiting for the return of her military general husband from a war in Africa.
In lieu of Deianeira, we get Amelia, portrayed by the incomparable Arsinée Khanjian (who notably went Greek last year as the title role in Necessary Angel’s Andromache, and who happens to be Atom Egoyan’s wife). Amelia waits and waits for her husband to come home, and fills her days by chatting with her housekeeper (Brenda Robins), her physiotherapist (Cara Ricketts), and her beautician (Sarah Wilson); ordering around her son James (an intense Jeff Lillico); and sparring with double-speaking government minister Jonathan (Nigel Shawn Williams having an absolute ball). But everything changes for Amelia when Jonathan brings two African “children” (a small boy and a rather mature looking young woman named Laela) to her house. At first, Amelia is told the two strangers are “survivors” from her husband’s brutal assault on an African city. Later, she’s told that her absent husband’s sexual attraction to Laela was the entire reason behind the siege; that he has, in fact, taken Laela as a second wife; that the little boy who accompanies her may not be Laela’s little brother but hers and the general’s son. From this revelation comes a disastrous decision from Amelia involving some very peculiar germ warfare that leads the action of the piece to its inexorably Greek tragic conclusion. Abena Malika is quite wonderful as Laela, and really lets you experience her many layers and contradictions (she also gets to show off her gorgeous singing voice).
In keeping with the structure of The Trachiniae, the first two thirds (at least) of the action centre on Amelia, who then disappears and is replaced by her home-at-last husband. Khanjian always brings a tremendous amount of gravitas to her work as an actor, and her performance as Amelia is no exception. But there is something strange about seeing Khanjian—whose shattering monologue from Palace of the End is likely still branded on the brain of everyone who saw her deliver it—play a character so, initially at least, silly. We’re used to seeing Khanjian as a woman whose tragedy is both her backstory and her backbone, but as Cruel and Tender begins, Amelia’s real pain is still in the post. As the action progresses (and her situation dramatically worsens), Khanjian becomes easier to accept in the role, but her casting never stops standing out. She’s a terrific actor (there is even evidence to suggest that she is the world’s best actor), but the combination of her own Armenian accent (which she always acts with) and the energy she naturally exudes onstage makes it hard ever to be entirely comfortable with her as Amelia.
But maybe Egoyan (and Crimp, who was there on opening night) don’t want you to get too comfortable. After all, this is a play that abandons its protagonist midway through and replaces her with another, à la Psycho. When Daniel Kash does arrive as the general, his performance is alarming and upsetting, and it’s impossible not to long for the return of his wife, who has been guiding you through the story up to this point. Lighting changes are unpredictable, and sometimes blindingly bright. A video projection element appears, suddenly and boldly, in the last five minutes of the play without any warning. Audience members gasp as actors crumble wine glasses in their hands and toss full colostomy bags at each other. Crimp’s words are sharp, cryptic, brutal, and often very funny, while Egoyan has created a sublimely sparse and antiseptic world for the characters to inhabit. And sometimes, for no reason we’ve been able to decipher, there’s some intentionally bad karaoke singing. Yet somehow, it really, really works.
In going over the individual elements of Cruel and Tender, it’s hard to find fault. There’s a lot of fine work here, and the show leaves you with lots to think about. But there was a feeling in the air—at least, there certainly was on opening night—of an audience not quite knowing what to make of what it had just seen. It’s bold and exciting work, but it’s certainly not perfect, and it’s often inscrutable. And that honestly might be the desired effect.