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Written by Wajdi Mouawad

Directed by Lynda Hill and Alon Nashman

Starring Alon Nashman

At Du Maurier Theatre Centre

in Toronto

Rating: ****

Great children's theatre is simply great theatre. Theatre Direct, a company that specializes in tough-minded material for young audiences, is billing Alphonse as a play for ages 10 and up. Certainly, you would have to be at least 10 to follow the complex narrative layering created by Montreal playwright Wajdi Mouawad in this drama about a boy who runs away.

But there is no upper limit on the age at which Mouawad's delicate and elusive metaphor for the loss of childhood, brought to life in a dexterous solo performance by Alon Nashman, will resonate. Alphonse is a play about the experience of growing up both for those in the throes of it and those with the memory of it.

It arrives in English in Toronto at the Du Maurier Theatre Centre thanks to the efforts of Nashman himself, who previously performed Alphonse at the 2000 Fringe festival, and to translator Shelley Tepperman, who offers a new, unabridged version of the French-language text that had previously been edited for a Vancouver production in 1998. It is a lovely piece of writing in which Alphonse's disappearance is lyrically interwoven with his imaginative life.

Alphonse, a boy on the cusp of adolescence, has not come home from school. His mother is tearful, his father resigned and his sister asleep, but at least his brother wants to call the cops. Meanwhile, out on a country road, Alphonse is just walking along, making up the story of Pierre-Paul René, "a gentle boy with a one-note voice who is never surprised by anything."

The police inspector, Victor, goes about interviewing Alphonse's classmates, who explain that this weird kid was awesome at marbles but was always inventing stories. Pierre-Paul René receives a mission from his monarch to journey to Pastryburg and retrieve all the cake recipes from the evil genius who has stolen them.

As fact and fiction collide, Mouawad gradually examines the nature of Alphonse's journey and his relationship with Pierre-Paul René, teasing out the theme, so sadly yet truly indicated from the start: "If by some impossible twist of fate, a man crossed paths with the child he used to be, and they both recognized each other, they would both crumple to the ground, the man in despair, the child in terror."

Nashman captures the essence of the piece in his quicksilver performance. The script requires the actor to play narrator, policeman, parents, school chums, Alphonse, Pierre-Paul René and even Alphonse's embryonic love interest, to distinguish them firmly and move between them without pause. That is, the performance has to reflect the dexterity of Alphonse's imagination, and the gap between his mind and the outside world. It does that, thanks both to Nashman's physical and vocal work establishing the various characters and to the simple but intense staging of the piece by its co-directors (Nashman himself and Theatre Direct artistic director Lynda Hill), which at its most delightful includes a rainshower of popcorn.

Much of what passes as adult theatre in this town insists that its themes be instantly comprehensible to the unsophisticated or inattentive mind. Material aimed at secondary-school audiences usually goes one better, not only identifying its message but preaching it too. It is the open-ended thoughtfulness of Alphonse that is so appealing. Alphonse continues in Toronto to Nov. 17. For more information: 416- 973-4000.

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