Flesh and Other Fragments of Love has beamed into Toronto, arriving on the Tarragon Theatre stage after being refracted through several lenses. Perhaps the distance it has travelled in time, place and language is why it appears so indistinct and faint?
The initial source of light is Une vie pour deux (A Life for Two), a 1978 novel by Marie Cardinal about a middle-aged French couple in a troubled relationship who, while on vacation in Ireland, find the body of a young woman that has washed ashore. The narrative was inspired by an actual trip the French writer took with her husband Jean-Pierre Ronfard, a director and actor who immigrated to Quebec in the 1960s and co-founded the theatre l’Espace Libre. (They remained married, though often living across an ocean from each other.)
Two years ago, Alice Ronfard, Cardinal and Ronfard’s daughter, directed the premiere of the stage adaptation in Montreal. It’s penned by Quebec’s Evelyne de la Chenelière, best known for the original play that was turned into the 2011 movie Monsieur Lazhar, nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Now, her adaptation has been translated into Flesh and Other Fragments of Love by Linda Gaboriau, and that’s what is premiering at the Tarragon.
Blair Williams, a company member at the Shaw Festival, plays the husband Pierre. For the part, he adopts his signature tone – that of a man continually astounded by the sound of his own voice. This works rather well for a man who discovers a dead woman and is moved to discuss her hands, her hair, her eye sockets at length, though it adds a level of irony I’m not sure was intended.
Maria del Mar, an actress better known for her television work, plays the wife Simone. She is, we are told time and time again, prone to overblown dramatics, but del Mar is too reedy in voice and reined in physically for that charge to ever fully stick.
For Pierre, the body of the young woman – she turns out to be a medical student and single mother named Mary – uncomfortably represents the bodies of other young women. Meanwhile, Simone, who has been cheated upon numerous times, is jealous of his latest obsession. “How lucky to be dead and mysterious,” she grumbles.
Together and separately, Pierre and Simone begin to invent a backstory about Mary that is really an imaginative extension of their own arguments about infidelity, parenthood, politics, freedom and maturity.
This being theatre, naturally, the body also gets a say in matters. Nicole Underhay, another Shaw Festival star, brings Mary back to life, slathered in a thick Irish accent. She comes to life as a creation f the couple, but she gains more and more agency over the course of the play, and even begins telling her own stories about the couple.
Director Richard Rose and designer Karyn McCallum make certain choices in the staging that ultimately scuttle the production. The most off-putting is the overly literal depiction of Mary as a decomposing body: Underhay dons white and green make-up, covers herself in necklaces and bracelets of algea, and moves about (in Denise Fujiwara’s choreography) like some sort of a zombie mermaid. Her state should have been left to the imagination; instead, she becomes a comic ghoul.
While the design is too detailed in terms of Mary, it is nebulous in terms of period and place – creating a disconnect in the gender politics and references to May 1968.
Despite the problems with the production, Cardinal and de la Chenelière’s text is frequently beautiful and often strikes a chord. Pierre’s and Simone’s problems are very familiar, almost too familiar, but the way they talk about them are fresh. (”Childhood is slow – everything has the time to leave its mark,” says Pierre, who, in Williams’ portrait, is compelling even in his caddishness.)
The paradox of it all is that this lovely language is largely used to turn the tragic death of a poor woman into just another weapon in a bourgeois domestic battle. “My vacation is ruined,” Simone says at her narcissistic height.
I don’t think Rose’s production particularly wants us to think Pierre and Simone are admirable, but there is a manipulative turn late in the evening that is designed to make us feel for two characters who seem incapable of such feeling themselves. I left unsure as to whether the play and the production were aware of the couple’s repulsiveness, and of what an advanced state of decomposition they are in.
Continues until February 16 at the Tarragon Theatre.
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