The two popular actors charm and move us in their latest shows at Tarragon and Theatre Passe Muraille.
We are all suffering from Alzheimer’s. That’s the provocative assertion of Edouard Beauchemin, the Quebec intellectual in François Archambault’s You Will Remember Me at Tarragon Theatre. Edouard argues that today’s bombardment of digital information, coming at us in fragments and continually distracting us, has left us with no short-term memory: we’re forever living in the present moment. And where does he make this assertion? In a YouTube video, of course.
You Will Remember Me—translated from the French by Bobby Theodore (the original, Tu te souviendras de moi, premiered in 2014 at Montreal’s Théâtre la Licorne; the English debut was at Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects)—is another play using dementia to explore the theme of memory. And, as we’ve come to expect, the afflicted person is someone brilliant, which apparently makes the disintegration of their mental faculties all the more tragic. But Archambault’s work has a couple of new wrinkles: the equating of the demented state with our collective distraction in the internet age and, more intriguingly, the idea that memory loss might be a way to resurrect the dead.
Edouard, played with Gallic panache by R.H. Thomson, is a historian whose long-term memory is still crystalline—he boasts of being able to recite Homer and can discourse eloquently on the 16th-century destruction of the Aztec empire by Cortés. But he can’t remember the name of his daughter’s new boyfriend from one minute to the next, or even recall that he recently appeared on television with his wife Madeleine (Nancy Palk) to discuss his condition.
The play opens with that television appearance, in which Thomson’s Edouard is all charm and swagger while Palk’s Madeleine masks her frustration with the sweet smile of a supportive spouse. But off-camera, she’s had enough and she dumps Edouard with their daughter, Isabelle (Kimwun Perehinec), for the weekend. Isabelle, a stressed TV reporter, has an out-of-town assignment, so she in turn offloads Edouard’s care on her unemployed partner, Patrick of the unmemorable name (Mark McGrinder). And he hands over Edouard for a few hours to Berenice (Michela Cannon), Patrick’s irritable teenage daughter.
As you may have guessed, it’s this unimpressed millennial who ends up bonding with Edouard, a man who disdains the present age, and it’s she who facilitates his rant on YouTube. She also takes in his history lessons. In a scene that must be especially poignant for Québécois audiences, Edouard, an old Separatist, recalls with emotion René Lévesque’s “until next time” speech in 1980 when the Parti Québécois lost the sovereignty referendum. Berenice only knows Lévesque as a kind of cartoon figure with a cigarette habit and a bad comb-over. Edouard himself sadly concedes that what he and the other Separatists once passionately fought for doesn’t seem to matter anymore.
The play’s mystery involves a dead figure buried in Edouard’s past that Berenice unwittingly discovers and ends up somewhat deviously bringing back to life. Here, dementia takes on the same role as the brain washers in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, erasing painful memories and restoring a happier time—perhaps one of the small mercies of the disease.
Archambault, whose past work includes that astute black comedy of bourgeois angst, The Leisure Society, treats the subject of mental deterioration with a light touch. Thomson’s Edouard is still self-aware enough to appreciate his own absurdities and his early scenes with McGrinder’s affable Patrick, who has good-natured fun with the old man’s inability to remember, are gently amusing. Archambault clearly knows that such cyclical conversations with dementia sufferers can be as funny as they are heartbreaking.
Thomson, still boyish as ever at 68, is a pleasure to watch as Edouard. With a French-Canadian accent so lightly applied that it’s more of an attitude, he’s the embodiment of the arrogant, egotistical, but still rakishly charming professor accustomed to holding the floor and having his way with impressionable female students. (You can see a lifetime of enduring that in Madeleine’s tense smile—Palk nails it.) He’s not a character that invites easy sympathy, but Thomson taps into the quiet pathos of the man, whose intellectual disgust for modern life has in fact become a desperate defense against a present that is rapidly slipping from his mental grasp.
The show, a co-production between Tarragon and Studio 180 Theatre, is directed by Joel Greenberg with sensitivity but not much imagination. That deficit extends to the design: the only notable thing about Denyse Karn’s spare, serviceable set is a sylvan backdrop with a nice projection effect that suggests rustling leaves.
The play’s title comes from a classic Yvette Giraud chanson that Edouard claims was his and Madeleine’s song. Madeleine, however, begs to differ. It’s a reminder that even when we do remember, we all remember differently.
Is there a more expressive actor than Anusree Roy?
You have to wonder that after watching her in her breakthrough solo Pyaasa, which is getting a reprise at Theatre Passe Muraille. In this tiny, perfect, and often funny tragedy, Roy speaks both English and Hindi, but her rubbery face and fluent body language tell half the story.
Roy tends to add a jolt of energy to any project she’s in: think of her last year as a peppery Indo-Canadian Beatrice in Tarragon’s Much Ado About Nothing, or as the pimping mother in Factory’s revival of Bombay Black earlier this season. Here, however, she gets to be the whole show. In this 50-minute piece, also written by Roy and set in India, she plays a giggly 11-year-old Dalit (untouchable) girl named Chaya, as well as Chaya’s outwardly obsequious but inwardly burning-with-resentment mother, and the mother’s permanently affronted higher-caste superior.
Chaya lives in a tent under a bridge with her parents, who clean toilets for a living. She subsists mainly on boiled rice water (the play’s title, “pyaasa,” is Hindi for “thirst”). Clever Chaya wants to go to school and eagerly memorizes her multiplication tables, but instead her mother sends her to work at a tea shop, cleaning the dirty cups. Once there, the hungry child is seduced with tea and biscuits by the owner’s son, who rapes her. Her fate after that is as horrifying as it is commonplace.
Roy, originally from Kolkata, came charging onto the Toronto scene in 2007 with this play, which won her the first two of her (so far) four Dora Awards. It’s like a beautifully executed short story, given a simple but striking staging in the TPM Backspace from director Thomas Morgan Jones and designer David DeGrow, in which the lone prop is a water bucket. If there’s any criticism to be made, it’s only that Pyaasa doesn’t really make a full evening of theatre. Roy and TPM should consider pairing it with another one-act the next time it’s remounted.