I had a crisis of faith watching Hosanna at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. I've always thought of Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay's 1973 drama as a modern classic, but this time around I was left in doubt as to whether it's a play built to endure.
On the surface, director Weyni Mengesha's revival appears solid. With a hint of a Québécois accent (and impeccable French on the occasions he pulls it out), Gareth Potter carves out a strong, central performance as the title transvestite, who is really four layers of character pancaked on top of each other.
Hosanna, you see, was once (and may still be) the less melodramatically named Claude Lemieux, a farm boy from Saint-Eustache who escaped to Montreal at age 16. We meet him returning in tears from a rival drag queen's Halloween party dressed up as his idol Elizabeth Taylor, dressed up as Cleopatra in the 1963 movie.
Oliver Becker, meanwhile, is exceptional as Cuirette, Hosanna's biker “husband” – and I only put that in quotation marks because Hosanna seems to and the times would have. He emits genuine warmth from beneath his leather get-up. His half-drunk tale of riding through Parc Lafontaine, longing for the days before they put up streetlights, resonates on a universal level. Who isn't, sometimes, afraid of change or being seen for who you really are?
And yet, Hosanna's crisis of identity – the crux of the play, spurred on by her cruel comeuppance at rival drag queen Sandra's costume party – feels small and petty here. I'm not really sure why it left me completely cold, but I have some theories.
Hypothesis No. 1: Potter's performance is too frosty.
Pottter plays Hosanna as bitter and cruel in his long, first-act fight with Cuirette – the character's charm and sense of humour only coming through in a curdled form. This may be a valid choice given Hosanna's state of mind, having just endured a public shaming in which his lover was complicit, but it keeps the audience shut out and ends up feeling too one-note. Potter's performance blooms in the direct address of the second act, but the sympathetic identification may come too late.
Hypothesis No. 2: Without the political allegory, this drag-queen drama is nothing more than a dated gay romance.
At the time of the play's premiere – and the original English-language production translated by John van Burek and Bill Glassco went all the way to Broadway with Richard Monette in the lead – Hosanna's wrestling match with himself over who he (or she) is was seen as a metaphor for Quebec's own tumult during the Quiet Revolution. Nearly 40 years down the line, however, the times have changed and this rings hollow.
The best recent production I've seen of Hosanna was at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in 2005. It starred aboriginal actor Kevin Loring as Hosanna and shifted from Montreal's The Main to Winnipeg's Main Street – and then the play's themes fully engaged on multiple levels. In Mengesha's production, only the love story comes across, and too late.
Hypothesis No. 3: Drag queens have lost their edge.
Written just four years after homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada, Tremblay's depiction of Hosanna's relationship with his biker boyfriend complete with unsanitized discussion of oral sex in Parc Lafontaine, and the meaning of being a bottom or a top, must have been shocking or at least illuminating for most mainstream audiences. Now, while the candour of the piece still feels admirably ahead of its time, there’s a potty-mouthed Priscilla Queen of the Desert musical on Broadway and the word “transgendered” pops up in chart-topping pop songs.
There's also the fact that the trans movement has made the sexual politics of the play – taken at face value, anyway – seem muddled. What does it really mean to “be yourself”? At the end, Hosanna embraces his identity as a man, but was he any less of one dressed up as a woman?
Hypothesis No. 4: The world in which Hosanna lives looks bogus
Hosanna's one-room apartment (designed by Michael Gianfrancesco) is too meticulously louche and her Cleopatra costume (designed by Dana Osborne) comes across as a professional job, not the “grotesque” one Tremblay describes in his stage directions and that could conceivably embarrass at a party. Then, there's the minor step of having the symbolic Pharmacie Beaubien sign across the street from Hosanna's apartment flash in red, even as Hosanna describes it as red and yellow.
“You're getting old the way a woman gets old … Fast!” Cuirette throws at Hosanna during one of their fights. I didn’t think that was true of Tremblay's play before, but now I wonder.
- Written by Michel Tremblay
- Translated by John Van Burek and Bill Glassco
- Directed by Weyni Mengesha
- Starring Gareth Potter and Oliver Becker