Written and directed by Jim Millan Starring Richard Clarkin, Genevieve Langlois, Fiona Highet and Normand Bissonnette At Toronto's Tarragon Theatre Rating: **
Director Jim Millan conceived of Dali more than 15 years ago, and the idea was a good one. Most stage biographies of artistic talents are long on gossip and short on art, finding no easy way to reproduce the great writing, music, poetry or painting on stage. Millan's notion of presenting a play about the Spanish surrealist in a surrealist style avoided that trap, offering the possibility of explaining both the man and the achievement.
Back in 1985, the show quickly established his two-year-old company, Crow's Theatre, as a comer. Guillermo Verdecchia played the man with the mustaches and a revival a year later featured Tom McCamus in the role, so Dali has serious credentials as a nurturer of future talents. And yet, as Millan revives it again for World Stage, with an extended run now continuing in the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, the limitations of his original idea are also very apparent.
Here is Dali, played with luxurious ego by Richard Clarkin, speaking about his life; here is a childhood in a setting of extravagant and grotesque Catholicism; here are school days in which the teacher's question is Rhinoceros and the correct response is Jan. 11, 1906, and here comes puberty symbolized by a great big salami.
The effect is highly amusing but the trouble, of course, is that it offers Millan and his cast no obvious way to relay solid information. I only understood an early scene with a coffin when I read the program notes afterwards: Dali was born less than a year after the death of an older brother also named Salvador, and so regularly walked by a grave bearing his own name, establishing his morbid anxieties early in life.
So, by the second half, Millan largely abandons the full-out surrealism to explain Dali's argument with the Paris surrealists, the effects of the Spanish civil war on his family, his war-time flight to the United States and his growing commercialization with more rational, if not conventional, narrative. Here, the story is less interesting and ends weakly as Millan hurries over the long period of Dali's artistic decline from the 1950s to the 1980s. (He would probably have done much better to stop earlier.)
The show never fully discovers what lies underneath Dali's extravagant personality, but Clarkin certainly has a great deal of fun with the façade. Genevieve Langlois plays Gala, the Russian wife whom Dali eventually lured away from poet Paul Eluard. She looks the part, and physically her performance is amusing and stylish. Her accent, however, wanders about between Russia, France and Quebec. Normand Bissonnette, gives very solid support both as the surrealist poet André Breton and Dali's distant father, while Fiona Highet is strong as the Spanish writer Frederico Garcia Lorca and the fashion designer Coco Chanel.
In fact, the best scene doesn't feature Dali, but rather the increasingly outraged Breton arguing about the artist's talents with Lorca, who was one of his early champions and is played by Highet as a woman inexplicably holding a sheep. Here, Millan manages both surrealism and concrete biography. Elsewhere, this amusing but ultimately uninformative show has to chose.
Dali plays until May 20.