I knew what I was going to see when I got to the upstairs space on Berkeley St. Oh sure, it was Canadian Rep Theatre’s staging of Carole Fréchette’s play Helen’s Necklace in John Murrell’s translation, directed by Ken Gass.
But I mean, I knew. The second paragraph director’s note Ken has put into the program makes it clear what we’re about to experience:
“This often-produced play is normally done with one female performer playing the role of Helen and one male actor playing Nabil, the taxi driver, and the four other inhabitants of the foreign (to her) city. Here, each of three performers share the role of Helen, while also collectively presenting the remaining characters. In the Canadian context, the role of Helen could obviously belong to actresses of any racial or ethnic identity, and by bringing together a diverse ensemble of performers, we came closer, hopefully, to recognizing the universality of Helen’s journey.” (Ken Gass)
This technique of dividing a dramatic personage among multiple persons is not a common one, but also, not so rare that it’s never been seen. We saw it in I’m Not There¸ the 2007 film about Bob Dylan. We saw it also in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus¸ likely due to the untimely passing of Heath Ledger in 2009, as other actors undertook parts of his role that were unfinished. I’ve experimented with it a bit myself.
Ken Gass’s approach to Fréchette’s text via Murrell’s translation offers another wrinkle. Excuse me if I wax mechanical for a moment. Any playtext can be understood as a bit of a puzzle, decoded or solved in the various choices made by the cast, director and designers; one can imagine several axes along which creators make choices, such as “loudness-softness” or “explicit – poetic”, or “internal- external”. Getting poetic or symbolic problematizes the signification, normally making it a bit harder to figure out who is who. We’re distanced and possibly alienated by such a process. But in a story that is, if you’ll excuse me for saying so, blunt & obvious, sometimes that’s a welcome thing, to lessen the pure onslaught of reality. I am recalling for example the film and also the production of Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad that I saw last year: each struggling with the question of how to represent or signify unwatchable horrors that are in the texts.
My background in music & opera may be showing, if I choose to see this adaptation (and I hope Ken will be okay with me calling it that) as something like chamber opera. We’re listening to the beauty of the voices, the stunning ensemble work of three extraordinary actors. Where the original might seem to punch you in the guts, the presentation of the same story becomes gentler in this adaptation, as though handed to a Greek chorus to sing as though from afar: even as they sometimes give it to us directly in our faces. The performances sweep you away even if the questions being asked have obvious answers.
But these are not questions one asks expecting any sort of answer.
From the first we’re watching emotions & impressions seeming to reverberate through the three actors –Akosua Amo-Adem, Zorana Sadiq and Helen Taylor—as though they were all the same person. Throughout there is a reflexive hand to the throat, feeling for a missing necklace.
As the story proceeds we discover what might be missing for each. It’s a bit like an elegy or a requiem in its universality, a search for what’s missing, mourning for what may never be restored. While it may go without saying that this is a tour de force, an impressive piece of theatre, it is above all a beautiful experience that swallows you up.
This exquisite 70 minute production will continue this weekend (meaning November 11th at 2:30 PM) at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley St upstairs space, before continuing on to Burlington Performing Arts Centre November 16 – 18.