Cruel and Tender - Canadian Stage Company at Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - Toronto, ON - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Martin Crimp, based on Sophocles' Trachiniae, Directed by Atom Egoyan.
Runs until Feb. 18th 2012
A bold stark white set looms over the stage, with walls leaning inwardly on two sides resembling an airport control tower, with clean rectangular openings cut out near the top. Looking a bit like a Richard Meier or Gwathmey and Siegel building. The simplicity in the beautifully epic looking set (by Debra Hanson) prepares the audience for the operatic leveled emotions set forth in this modern retelling of a Greek tragedy by Sophocle. The power level sustained in the heavy story, much like the wavering lighting, is sadly uneven despite the best efforts by an impressive cast. Whether the absurdities in the play were heightened by director Egoyan or they were already in Crimp's play itself, the play failed to overcome my own personal dislike for the Greek tragedy play structure (often with long monologues spoken directly to the audience), and it diluted the overall impact of Cruel and Tender.
Jeff Lillico, who I have been touting as one of Toronto's best young talents (Soulpepper's Parfumerie, The Fantasticks), doesn't disappoint as the son of a General who has been away at war. His turn from spoiled son to anger at his mother should have been brought out more in the play to become the heart of the story, instead of a peripheral story around the mother at the centre of it all.
Daniel Kash, the General being spoken of in much of the play, is amazingly terrifying. Despite appearing only in the later half of the play, and never appearing in the same scene with his wife Amelia, Kash's General displays his reign of terror within seconds, pulling together much of the first half into perspective, and easily showing the cruel side of the play.
Arsinée Khanjian's Amelia is the disillusioned, in denial, devoted wife of the General. Amelia waits for her General husband to return but while waiting, slowly discovers the truths of the General's terror in war (all to, ironically, fight terrorism). While being pampered by her staff (a housekeeper Rachel, played by Brenda Robins; a physiotherapist, played by Stratford's Cara Ricketts; and a Beautician, played by Sarah Wilson). Perhaps it was Khanjian's performance, but while I believe we were supposed to feel the most for Amelia, I felt her performance left me cold through most of the play. There didn't seem to be a connection with Khanjian and the audience, despite having all the monologues that spoke directly to us. Then again, I've never really felt that device (with the 3 girls sort of acting as a chorus like entity) works in modern day theatre.
With lots of glasses breaking at the end of scenes, wildly varying lighting schemes, characters singing bad karaoke, and the appearance of Laela (a lovely Abena Malika), one of the General's new lovers he took from the war ravaged land he was in, there needed to be a coherence to put all the varying pieces together. It was absurdity without that underlying point which didn't quite make the whole play work despite interesting moments throughout. The play was never boring, but partly because I was just trying to figure it all out, trying to put all the pieces together. In the end, I didn't quite get it, but it was definitely a fascinating, if quite a mindf#ck of an experience.
The interesting thing about experiencing Cruel and Tender was that I didn't quite know what to make of it after the show, and even now. I could understand those that found it brilliant (and there are definitely fans), and those that hated it (which I didn't quite fall into either).
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com
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