Everyone should be as lucky as Wallace Shawn to be known for two totally incongruous things.
To one large swath of the population, Shawn is the short, pug-like actor who has now delighted several generations of children through his work on The Princess Bride and in the Toy Story franchise.
To another, thinner strip of humanity, he is an intellectual, dissenting American playwright whose works have premiered in England at the Royal Court and the National Theatre – and, at one point, were derided as “pollution” by one august critic sitting in the House of Lords.
Aunt Dan and Lemon, Shawn’s puzzling 1985 play about a young woman’s relationship with a family friend obsessed with Henry Kissinger, is currently getting a production in the Theatre Passe Muraille backspace from a new company called Shadowtime. It’s the first time the show – revived not too long ago at the Royal Court and off-Broadway – has been seen in a professional context in Toronto since its Tarragon Theatre premiere in 1986.
A rare opportunity, then, for those familiar with the first Shawn to catch a glimpse of the second. At first, Aunt Dan and Lemon might make you think the two Shawns are not all that incompatible, after all; the play begins almost like a children’s TV show, with Lemon (Helen Juvonen), a fragile and reclusive young woman in a cardigan and a precious British accent, greeting the audience like Mister Rogers: “Dear people, come into my little flat, and I’ll tell you everything about my life.”
The first sign that this is not for the kiddies comes only when Lemon rather matter of factly tells us that she likes to read books about Nazi atrocities to fall asleep.
What Lemon mostly tells us about, however, is her relationship with a beloved American friend of her parents named Dan – short for Danielle, and played here by Joanne Latimer.
One summer when she was 11, Lemon spent an inordinate amount of time with her “aunt” Dan. During the day, she’d listen in as Dan defended Kissinger’s Realpolitik in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War to her mother.
And at night, she’d listen to Dan’s bedtime stories about her association with a group of bed-hopping criminals in her youth. In Latimer’s charismatic performance, she certainly seems like engagingly contrarian company for an adult – though, for a child, pretty much everything she says seems inappropriately sadistic or sexual.
Shawn definitely carves his own path. The structure of this play is unpredictable and decidedly not “well-made,” an often intriguing mix of argument and allegory with lots of long, shapeless monologues and strange, fleeting characters (the cast totals seven here).
The first significant scene involves Dan making the case for the state’s use of force, abroad and at home, so that “we can sit in this garden and be incredibly nice” (and, by implication, sit in the theatre and listen to people politely make excuses for American actions in the Vietnam War).
The second shows a story from Dan’s youth acted out – in which a prostitute named Mindy (Breton Lalama) seduces and strangles a man for money. This is performed as a strip show under Dan Spurgeon’s direction, though Shawn’s point that violence is seductive and intriguing to most humans, as evidenced by our love of lurid murder mysteries, might have actually been better made minus the nudity.
With her stories within stories done, Lemon comes back again to the Nazis. She didn’t really want to tell us about her life at all, it seems, but to justify her fascination with the Nazis and argue that they weren’t all that different from people in our society aside from their honesty about killing.
Many spectators and critics have found Aunt Dan and Lemon’s central argument provocative. Revisiting this Cold War curio in this scrappy but solid enough production, however, I was left simply cold.
Shawn must have been reacting to the idea that the Nazis were some sort of unique evil – and, certainly, that is a historically blinkered point of view. But it seems equally lacking in nuance, not to mention pretty pointless, to simply argue that we’re always a step away from the Nazis at all times – and the play now seems like a dramatization of the fallacy of Reductio ad Hitlerum.
Or it would if it really dramatized anything effectively. The fact it doesn’t is made particularly clear in a production where most of the performances feel highly artificial. Lemon is a construct of a character, while Aunt Dan’s dual lives – Oxford-educated Kissinger fan, bisexual lover of murderers – seem even more inconceivable than Shawn’s.
Other characters only appear in fragments, speaking rather unconvincing dialogue. At one point, Lemon floats the idea that human compassion is merely a myth. But in Shawn’s odd, offbeat play, it seems like humans might be, too.
Aunt Dan and Lemon runs at Theatre Passe Muraille backspace until Sept. 25 (passemuraille.ca)Report Typo/Error