Toronto’s busiest public theatre ushers in autumn with an old favourite, a world premiere, and its first crack at classic Michel Tremblay.
Soulpepper Fall Season
Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane)
Runs to Oct. 17
$29.50 – $94
Soulpepper Theatre’s Fall Season is up and running, with four new productions playing in repertory at the Young Centre in the Distillery District. Torontoist has already reviewed the company’s staging of Marat/Sade. Below are capsule reviews of the other three shows.
The Play’s the Thing
The good ol’ play-within-a-play concept is getting a workout on Soulpepper’s Baillie mainstage right now. While Marat/Sade gives us a raucous history pageant performed by the inmates of an insane asylum, The Play’s the Thing offers a hilarious mock-romance staged in a seaside castle. The actual name of Ferenc Molnár’s 1926 Hungarian comedy is, in fact, The Play at the Castle (Játék a kastélyban), but Soulpepper is once again using the charming English adaptation by British humorist P.G. Wodehouse, who favoured a Shakespearean title.
The plot is simple: a playwriting duo and their collaborator, a young composer, overhear the composer’s fiancée, a celebrated actress, in a passionate romantic exchange with a fellow actor. To save the composer from despair—and rescue their collaboration—the chief playwright, Sandor Turai (Diego Matamoros), cooks up a ruse that the exchange was really just dialogue from a new play he’s written that the pair were rehearsing.
Act 1 of László Marton’s production—a revival of the successful one he previously directed for Soulpepper in 1999 and 2003—is disconcertingly low-key. But wait for it: the second half, in which a scene from Turai’s bogus play is performed, is flat-out funny. Turai not only assuages the composer’s doubts, he turns the scene into a comeuppance for the philandering actor (a delightfully pompous C. David Johnson), who is forced into self-ridicule.
The acting is top notch on all counts, from Johnson and Raquel Duffy as the diva fiancée, to William Webster as Turai’s fretful partner and—especially—Gregory Prest in a small but beautifully played role as the frantically anxious secretary. Matamoros, who portrays the Marquis de Sade as a god-like play director in Marat/Sade, is an equally lofty but far more benign presence as the unflappable Turai. This is a man who can write an entire play from scratch overnight and not break a sweat. Matamoros relaxes into the familiar role like a pair of old slippers, and watching him play it with such genial ease is half the delight of this production.
Molnár’s merry treatment of the illusion-vs.-reality theme has made this farce enduringly popular with playgoers. And it should be a special favourite with all those poorly paid, workshopped-to-death playwrights out there, for whom elegant Turai is a fantasy hero.
In the music biz it’s known as DSAS, or Difficult Second Album Syndrome—the tendency for a new artist to follow an acclaimed debut with a less exciting sophomore effort. It can happen in the theatre, too. Actress-turned-playwright Pamela Mala Sinha’s solo show Crash was praised to the skies when it opened in the tiny Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace a few seasons ago, going on to win the 2012 Dora Award for best new play. Now her much-anticipated follow-up, Happy Place, is getting a premiere production from Soulpepper in its bigger Michael Young Theatre. And the play itself is larger and more ambitious: a seven-character, two-act drama about women suffering from various forms of severe depression. But it lacks the tight focus and emotional impact of Crash.
Happy Place (note that ironic title) is set in a hospital unit where the women are in-patients and where touchy-feely therapy, provided by therapist Louise (Deborah Drakeford), can’t hide the fact that they’re all subject to suicide watch. It opens with the arrival of newcomer Samira (Oyin Oladejo), an actress who has been traumatized by a horrific rape. Indeed, she appears to be the same young woman, unnamed, who told her story in Crash—Happy Place being an offshoot of Sinha’s first play. Samira tries to hide away in her room, working out her trauma by writing in a journal, but she’s reluctantly drawn into the lives of the other patients.
These include middle-aged Joyce (Caroline Gillis), a trucker’s wife who is almost desperately upbeat; raunchy older lady Mildred (Diane D’Aquila); the standoffish Rosemary (Irene Poole), another newcomer; and the seemingly dopey Nina (Liisa Repo-Martell), who claims to be pregnant. Sinha herself plays the cynical Kathleen, also a rape survivor, who has hidden her troubled past from her Muslim husband.
As playwright, Sinha gradually reveals these women’s histories, sometimes in detail, sometimes in a more circumspect way. We learn their backstories as they play Scrabble, watch television (there’s a funny parody of lurid movies-of-the-week), and slowly bond over their shared pain. Slow being the key word here: Sinha’s careful exposition of each character is a gift to her cast of experienced actresses, but the play takes a long time to build dramatically. And the usually imaginative Alan Dilworth, who also directed Crash, has opted for a subtle staging that sometimes verges on bland, merging with the pale walls of Lorenzo Savoini’s sterile hospital set.
But Dilworth does bring forth some strong acting from his ensemble. The standout is Repo-Martell, who makes the enigmatic Nina at once the most simple and most complex of the women. If there’s a Dora in store for Happy Place, it should be for her performance.
Yours Forever, Marie-Lou
At one side of the stage sits a paunchy, middle-aged man, knocking back a steady stream of beers, while on the other sits his wife, complaining of how he rapes her when drunk and beats on their kids. And yet, in Michel Tremblay’s Yours Forever, Marie-Lou, this apparent monster isn’t the bad guy. Oh, he’s reprehensible, all right; but the real villain in Tremblay’s tragedy is the Roman Catholic Church, with its prohibitions against divorce and birth control, and its oppressive morality.
This Tremblay classic, first produced in Montreal in 1971 (as À toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou) and now being seen at Soulpepper in a fresh English translation by (who else?) Linda Gaboriau, is very much of its time. That time being the Quiet Revolution of the mid-20th century, when Quebec began to shrug off the heavy influence of the church. But even so, the play still fascinates and horrifies as an ugly portrait of a dead-end working-class marriage turned unbearably toxic.
The husband and wife are Léopold (Christian Laurin) and Marie-Louise (Patricia Marceau), whose exchange of insults and complaints takes place upstage and in the past. Their dialogue is counterpointed with that of their adult daughters, Carmen (Suzanne Roberts Smith) and Manon (Geneviève Dufour), who are seen downstage, 10 years later. Their parents are now dead and Carmen has escaped that stifling world, remaking herself as a sexy country singer on the Main. Manon, however, continues to dwell in the family’s apartment and imitate her late mother’s life of piety.
This is Soulpepper’s first production of a Tremblay play, and they’ve got the right woman in the director’s chair. Diana Leblanc is keenly attuned to the great playwright’s musical prose, and she’s cast four actors of French-Canadian stock, who capture expertly the accents and rhythms of Tremblay’s joual. But the performances are unequal. Laurin’s desperate Léopold and Marceau’s bitter Marie-Lou, a couple who bring out the worst in each other, movingly evolve from a cartoon of domestic hell into tragic, pitiable figures. Dufour’s Manon and Smith’s Carmen, in contrast, never become more than mouthpieces for a struggle between tradition and change, and their arguments lose interest before the play is through.
But kudos to Glen Charles Landry’s surreal set design. Tremblay talked about planting “a bomb in the family cell,” and Landry’s nightmare landscape on the Michael Young stage looks like the aftermath of an explosion, strewn with auto-body parts that intimate the terrible event at the heart of this still-potent drama.