Saturday, September 25, 2010

24 Sep'10

Rating: 3 out of 5

Hey Toronto! Fernando Krapp wrote us this letter -- but sadly, something seems to have been lost in the translation. Not so much in Matthew Jocelyn's translation of Tankred Dorst's free-wheeling stage adaptation of Miguel de Unamuno's novella Nothing Less Than a Man, mind you, but rather in Jocelyn's subsequent transformation of his translation from the page to the stage.

FERNANDO KRAPP WROTE ME THIS LETTER: AN ATTEMPT AT THE TRUTH opened in its Canadian première at the Bluma Appel Theatre Thursday, launching a new season for Canadian Stage. In the process it marked an official inauguration of sorts for Jocelyn's tenure as artistic director there, launching as it does the first season to bear his imprimatur. And almost from the get-go, it is clear that, as an artistic director, Jocelyn certainly knows how to pick 'em.

While, at least in Jocelyn's translation from Dorst's native German to English, this play may fall a trifle short of the language of truly great drama. It is nonetheless a powerful, timeless piece of work that offers three roles against which any actor who aspires to greatness should be proud to measure him or herself. But while the choice of FERNANDO KRAPP may give Jocelyn major street cred on the artistic front, his subsequent staging of the work fails to impress on the directorial level.

Set in an unnamed town at a time unspecified, FKWMTL begins just after the letter in question has been received. That letter was written to Julia, the most beautiful girl in town (played by Ngozi Paul) by the fabulously wealthy Fernando Krapp (Ashley Wright). Krapp has just arrived in town and is proposing marriage with the full connivance of Julia's father (Walter Borden), who has arranged a brief bridal viewing across a crowded park. Overwhelmed by her unknown suitor's brashness, Julia eventually succumbs to his matrimonial blandishments, but in the face of her husband's unassailable pragmatism, the romantic and insecure young wife eventually falls under the spell of her tragic and poetic neighbour, played by Ryan Hollyman.

It's a compelling love story, devoid of heroes or villains in the conventional sense, that nonetheless succeeds time after time in its attempts at emotional, even human truths. Unfortunately, Jocelyn seems determined to put the wrong emphasis on Dorst's international reputation as an absurdist playwright, using absurdity not so much to underline the humanity of the tale, but rather as a bizarre end in itself.

By walling his performers off from the drama of their characters and fitting them instead with metaphorical straight jackets of silliness, he transforms Paul, Wright and Hollyman into a sloppily deconstructed and woefully reconstituted version of The Three Stooges. This forces them to not only walk all over the story they are trying to tell, but to take the occasional pratfall on it as well for good measure. It's not exactly a clown version of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, but it comes uncomfortably close.

Ironically, the tragedy of Jocelyn's blurred vision is compounded rather than diminished by typically fine work from designer Astrid Janson (sets and costumes) and Robert Thomson (lighting), who fill the stage with flashes of brilliant colour, fairly dripping with sunshine. The contributions of sound designer Lyon Smith however prove a tad more difficult to embrace, seemingly imposed more because they are available than because they are necessary.

As a publicity stunt, faux-protesters welcomed opening night audiences to the St. Lawrence Centre with cheeky signs proclaiming: "Live Theatre is Krapp." While that may indeed be true, one can't help but conclude that this playwright deserves better KRAPP than this -- and so do CanStage audiences.

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