Hosanna has never seemed a richer, more complex piece of writing than in a searching new production directed by Gregory Prest at Soulpepper.
The great Québecois playwright Michel Tremblay’s 1973 play is about a drag queen who dresses up as Elizabeth Taylor in the movie Cleopatra for a Halloween party that goes horribly wrong. Premiered a few years before the Parti Québécois first came to power, Hosanna was at first was received as a nationalist political allegory, with the main character Claude, a.k.a. Hosanna, a metaphor for Quebec – a province wrapped in a country inside an empire, unable or unwilling to embrace its true self.
Time has not been very kind to that interpretation – as it has clashed with changes in Québécois politics on one hand and, even more problematically, with the rise of the transgender movement. The question of Hosanna’s true self has been troubled – and on the play’s Wikipedia page, you’ll find an edit war over which pronoun to properly use for the title character.
Rarely has a play moved from revolutionary to reactionary so quickly – though the last major English-language revival, at the Stratford Festival in 2011 seemed neither, just flat and dated.
Not so here and now at Soulpepper. Perhaps in part because of the increased visibility of transgender characters in pop culture over the past five years, the pendulum seems to have swung back – as Hosanna and his macho biker husband Cuirette are now unburdened by the need to represent more than themselves.
Prest’s production makes a strong case for Tremblay’s play in the simplest way possible – by simply presenting these characters as living, breathing humans.
Both Hosanna and Cuirette could not be more vividly brought to life as individuals than they are here by Damien Atkins and Jason Cadieux. Inhabiting a specific place and time, and living in a very particular way, these characters’ struggles with identity, with body image, with loving one another actually become very relatable and resonant. (John Van Burek and Bill Glassco’s English translation, it should be noted, is aging like a fine wine.)
One one level, the first act of Tremblay’s play can seem cliche – with Hosanna and Cuirette scrapping like so many unhappy couples in plays from Private Lives or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the revelation of what’s upset Hosanna being unnecessarily delayed.
But Tremblay’s writing is slyly penetrating – casting a skeptical eye back on this iconic theatrical situation, which appears in many cases in plays written about heterosexual couples by homosexual playwrights.
Here, the performative aspect of gender that may be hidden below in the surface in classic miserable-marriage plays is brought into a bright light – like Cuirette’s beloved Parc La Fontaine has been, to his chagrin, in the play. Indeed, it makes you wonder to what extent Tremblay chose Taylor as the object of Hosanna’s obsession because of her Oscar-winning turn in the film of Virginia Woolf? (R.I.P. Edward Albee.)
This couple is different, too, because their love seems more real. Cadieux certainly plays Cuirette as a person with a passion for Hosanna and a natural instinct for warmth that he finds hard to balance with his bike-riding, leather-wearing persona.
Meanwhile, Atkins brings a fresh angle to his character – his edgy Hosanna doesn’t unleash cutting remarks and outrageous acts for the audience’s entertainment. You see his anxiety, his unhappiness and can’t comfortably laugh at or with him.
Indeed, for much of the play, his Hosanna is a very unlikeable figure, petty, lacking in empathy for others – a Russian doll of a character who only sheds his hard, wooden shells in the sensational, psychological striptease of a second act.
But what is at the centre of Tremblay’s creation? Is it Claude or Hosanna? Is it a man or a woman? Is it an actor or a character?
Yannik Larivée’s one-room apartment set eventually transforms into a wall of mirrors aimed at the audience as much as the actors – and the question becomes unanswerable and unsettling.
There’s something existential in the nakedness that ends the Prest production – a fear that when we strip off all the layers, of performance, of politics, of phenomenology, we may not actually be able to know ourselves.
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