Play gives voice to our darkest secret thoughts

REVIEW

Lion in the Streets

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Where: Phoenix Theatre, University of Victoria (Chief Dan George Theatre)

When: To Feb. 21

Rating: four (out of five)

Canadian playwright Judith Thompson is famous (at least in this country) for drama that delves deeply into the grim heart of human dysfunction. Her 1990 play, Lion in the Streets, being revived by a fine student cast at the University of Victoria, is no exception.

Think of this as a theatrical relay, in which one mind-roasting scene hands off to another. Vignettes include a raving cerebral palsy victim, a desperate housewife who performs a bizarre striptease at a dinner party, and a cancer-ridden woman fantasizing about a strange, Ophelia-like death.

Obviously, we’re not exactly talking The Sound of Music here. Linking these joyless scenes is Isobel, a ragged Portuguese immigrant girl who was murdered 17 years ago. Well-played Wednesday night by a committed Lindsay Curl, she’s a sad little ghost, who, as the play proceeds, comes to the realization she’s not lost but dead. Thompson presents Isobel as a sort of living scream — she’s not a three-dimensional character but rather, a horrified witness to her own unhappy demise.

The production, skilfully directed by Conrad Alexandrowicz, offers a variant on magic realism. Scenes begin in a naturalistic manner, then shift to a nightmarish realm as Thompson plunges into unconscious worlds. This is where the playwright is at her best — her subterranean visions are unrelentingly honest, brave and highly imaginative.

For instance, the housewife who does the striptease, Sue (nicely portrayed by Sarah Cashin) confronts her husband about his affair. As the scene concludes, she fantasizes that he might return if he had terminal cancer, thus providing the opportunity to nurse him until his death. It’s a peculiar yet curiously human notion. Thompson gives voice to something we might think about in our darkest of hearts, but never mention to another soul.

Ditto for a sequence in which a woman with cerebral palsy is interviewed by a reporter. Scarlett (an excellent turn by Arielle Permack) seems rough-hewn, but relatively normal at first. Yet in the most spectacularly strange twist in a very strange play, she starts babbling in a demonic fashion about literally absorbing the journalist in a sexual, cannibalistic manner that suggests a Hieronymous Bosch nightmare. Once more, the playwright is examining the unspeakable depths of the human psyche.

Thompson suggests we all have the potential to shatter the brittle veneer of civilized behaviour to act out our most primal, immoral, animalistic urges. This, perhaps, is the “lion in the streets.”

The play concludes with a scene in which Isobel confronts her killer. In my view, this is where Thompson slips. The denouement seems heavy-handed, with a self-conscious Freudian component that lands with a thunk.

The set for Chief Dan George Theatre’s thrust stage is minimal; it’s essentially a few chairs. Slides of artworks represent different scenes — they are most effective, done in a primitive style with dark, colourful, jewel-like tones.

Actors who aren’t primary performers in scenes remain on stage. They often augment the action — in one scene, a pair form a bed; elsewhere, two others dance with the housewife as she recalls happier days with her husband. Sometimes, these supernumeraries merely bear mute witness to what’s happening on stage.

The directorial approach, here and elsewhere, is tremendously successful. In such a play, verging on melodrama, unorthodox use of movement can descend into “jazz-hands” overkill. Happily, Alexandrowicz has a thorough understanding of the play — the extra physicality adds much.

This is one of the most consistently strong student casts in recent memory. Space doesn’t allow descriptions of all performances. However, kudos go to Sean Dyer, Logan Mitev, Levi Schneider, Zoe Wessler and Nikola Whitney-Griffiths.

I hate to use the phrase “best suited for the adventuresome theatre-goer.” Rather, let’s say this show will be enjoyed by open-minded, intelligent audiences. It’s not easily forgettable. And, despite Thompson’s flawed ending, the excellence of the production makes it all worthwhile.

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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