It’s a season of sequels here in Toronto theatre: George F. Walker’s Moss Park; Linda Griffiths’s Heaven Above, Heaven Below; and now, at Nightwood Theatre, Jennifer Tremblay’s The Carousel.
The Carousel, which had its French premiere at Montreal’s Theatre d’Aujourd’hui just in January, follows up with the unnamed woman who was racked by guilt over the death of a neighbour in Tremblay’s earlier poetic monologue, The List.
But you needn’t have seen The List to understand The Carousel. Indeed, it’s probably better if you haven’t seen it, so you won’t spend the beginning of the play trying to figure out how the main character went from uptight urbanite to consummate countrywoman and seemingly dropped a class or two in status.
While the character may have changed, the actor is the same: Allegra Fulton, who starred in The List in its illuminating 2010 Nightwood production, is back on stage in the lead role, no longer fidgeting in a bright white kitchen, but sitting in a bright, white hospital hallway designed in dizzying forced perspective by Denyse Karn.
If The List was a wholly original piece of dramatic writing, The Carousel is a much more conventional one-woman play, with Fulton playing the main character plus channelling a dozen or so of her Québécois relatives: An alcoholic grandmother, a rough horse-wrangling grandfather, a rebellious mother sent to a convent, and a winking, drinking father who plays the drums and runs away. Everything that happens to the three (or four) generations depicted here will be familiar if you’ve ever read a Canadian novel – and when the inevitable family secrets come tumbling out, you may groan instead of gasp.
There are, nevertheless, dramatic moments that Fulton fully brings to life in a distinct fashion – notably a little girl’s heart-pounding runaway ride on a horse headed straight for Route 138, the highway that follows the north shore of the St. Lawrence and where, in this story, roadkill is constantly washing ashore.
When Tremblay’s text is wry or bawdy or full of heartbreak, Fulton’s performance is gripping. I loved her incarnation of a series of charismatic small-town charmers, full of affectionate swagger; and her depiction of children – running mothers ragged or tip-toeing around in grandma’s high heels for the first time – is adorable.
But the lyricism of Tremblay’s writing often does not transmit and, if there’s a clear arc to the show, Fulton does not find it. What we get here are snippets of a half-dozen lives, all of which come and go in a flash. There’s nothing to anchor them.
Megan Follows, who starred in Nightwood’s production of The Penelopiad (and, yes, Anne of Green Gables), is making her directorial debut with this show and she’s tried to force a centre on the nebulous text, making it into a kind of flashback as the narrator sits by her mother’s deathbed.
But it doesn’t really work: Karn’s set is just too shiny and clean for such a messy and dark story – and soon enough, it just looks like a woman performing a solo show in a hospital. (While I didn’t see Patrice Dubois’s original production in Montreal, the shots look right in tone: shabby and shadowy.)
Mostly though, I think the problems are in Tremblay’s play. It is too much like an actual carousel: you could get on or off at any point, and once you recover your balance, there’s not much to take away from the experience.
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