Ken Gass, fired as artistic director of Factory Theatre a year and a half ago, is back on the scene with a new company called Canadian Rep Theatre. Pacamambo, the first show of its first three-play season, is a strange place to start.
Quebec playwright Wajdi Mouawad wrote this play about death for young audiences in 2000, around the time he embarked on Blood Promises, a four-play epic that includes Scorched (later turned into a movie by Denis Villeneuve, nominated for a foreign-language Oscar in 2011).
Tideline, the first play in the Blood Promises cycle (which had its English-language premiere at Factory under Gass’s leadership), concerns a young man named Wilfrid who transports his father’s corpse back his homeland, then searches for a place to bury it in a country where all the cemeteries are filled.
In Pacamambo, Julie, a young girl played by a fierce Amy Keating, has the opposite reaction to loss: when her grandmother Marie dies, she pulls the body down into a storage locker in the basement of her apartment building and – along with her loyal dog Growl – decides not to leave its side until death shows up to answer her questions.
We meet Julie evading a conversation with a psychologist (Karen Robinson), who wants to figure out why she holed up with the corpse for 19 days until she was discovered.
Roiling in righteous rage, and refusing to blindly follow the rules of the adult world, Julie is a recognizable younger relative of many of Mouawad’s other angry adolescent or young adult protagonists; she’s also a kind of anti-Antigone – rebelling against society by refusing to bury a beloved family member, rather than insisting upon it as per her Greek dramatic ancestor.
Eventually, Julie does open up to the psychiatrist – and tells the story about what happened in her own way, which means her dog features prominently, a life-stealing moon is a major character, and there is much talk of a realm her grandmother told her about called Pacamambo, “the land where everybody is everybody else” or “the land where you become the people you love.” In the process, Julie makes her way through the various stages of grief – depression, depicted here as a sudden infatuation with death, being the most compelling dramatically.
Mouawad, exiled from war-torn Lebanon with his family at 8, has been steadfast in his dedication to theatre for young people, notably during his tenure as the artistic director of the National Arts Centre’s French Theatre. In this play, he certainly doesn’t speak down to children – believing death and depression are not off-limits as topics.
Gass’s production – staged with audience on either side of a platform – is a sturdy one, with Michelle Polak giving a delightful performance as the dog and Kyra Harper, as the dead grandmother, a strong contender for best corpse in a French-Canadian play at this year’s Dora Awards. (She’d be up against Nicole Underhay in Flesh and Other Fragments of Love, currently at Tarragon Theatre.)
As much as Canadian Rep says Pacamambo is for audiences from nine to 99, however, the parable felt thin for an adult going out to the theatre on a cold winter evening. It’s an odd context in which to present this play.
What is Canadian Rep all about? Well, in the mandate printed in the program, Gass sets out a long-term mission to establish a permanent ensemble of actors to reinvestigate works from the contemporary Canadian canon; that could be a worthwhile addition to the city’s theatre ecology.
In the immediate, however, what Gass has created is a three-play season that consists of an English-language premiere of a play from Quebec, and new works from Judith Thompson and George F. Walker, all with different casts rather than the same one. In short, Canadian Rep Theatre currently looks like an alternative Factory Theatre – especially given that the Thompson and Walker are both plays that were pulled from that theatre when Gass was pushed out. This is the last thing Toronto needs – one more small company competing over the same sliver of audience eager to see new Canadian plays. That Pacamambo premiered on the same night as a premiere over at Theatre Passe Muraille is another sign that a certain segment of this city’s theatrical community cares little for co-operation or the big picture.
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