There's a luscious chunk of writing that appears early in Yann Martel's Beatrice & Virgil, and late in the dramatization of the novel now onstage at Toronto's Factory Theatre. It consists of Virgil, a sagacious howler monkey, describing a pear in sensuous, near-erotic detail to his friend, the gentle donkey Beatrice, who has never encountered the fruit.
It's a moment of pleasant diversion for these two suffering creatures and you can imagine how anyone close to starvation, as they are, might beguile the time in the same way. Alas, it is also one of the few successful bits of whimsy in this otherwise heavy-handed Holocaust allegory. Martel's book, published in 2010, is an artistic failure and first-time playwright Lindsay Cochrane's faithful adaptation – having its world premiere at Factory in collaboration with Ottawa's National Arts Centre – only magnifies its flaws.
I appreciate Cochrane's impulse to dramatize the work. Martel's novel is a strenuous postmodern exercise in which the most intriguing element is a fragmented play-within-the-story involving the titular talking beasts, victims of what they call "the Horrors." Their stretches of dialogue read like an Aesop's fable as told by Samuel Beckett – indeed the setting is even jokingly borrowed from Waiting for Godot – and seem to cry out for an actual staging. Even if a dilemma immediately crops up: how do you represent these animal characters without becoming tasteless or, as someone in the book puts it, turning it into "Winnie the Pooh meets the Holocaust?"
Cochrane and her experienced director, Sarah Garton Stanley, have found ways around that. Beatrice & Virgil sometimes appear as toy figurines muddily projected on a sheet, and once in a stop-motion animation sequence. (The projections are designed by Ken Mackenzie.) But mostly the two are played – with no animal costumes and minimal mimicry – by actors Damien Atkins and Pierre Brault.
Atkins and Brault also portray the two human characters in the framing story. Atkins is Henry, a successful author and stand-in for Martel, who has written a hugely popular animal novel – read: Martel's Life of Pi. Among his regular fan mail, Henry receives a snippet of the Beatrice & Virgil drama and a request for help with it. The fan turns out to be an elderly taxidermist also named Henry (Brault), who has devoted his life to preserving species on the verge of extinction. His unfinished play at first appears to be an expression of his disgust at the mass murder of animals, but it very quickly becomes clear what he's really writing about.
This play takes place in a country called "the Shirt" that is covered in "blue and grey stripes." Signs are posted warning citizens against Virgil, in terms that echo the racist propaganda of the Nazis. Beatrice describes being detained and tortured. Virgil imitates a departing train. And so the Holocaust allusions continue to be laid on with a trowel. The only mystery – who is the taxidermist and why is he writing this play? – is resolved in a final flourish of ridiculous melodrama that came across as an embarrassing cop-out in the novel and does so again in this adaptation.
But if Cochrane can't fix the book's problems, she does skilfully bring it to life onstage. And she gets a lot of help from Garton Stanley's clever staging. The show begins like a lecture, with Henry the author narrating at a podium in front of a projection sheet. The sheet is then whipped away to reveal Henry the taxidermist's shop, also backed by a sheet, which in turn is eventually removed to disclose the setting of the Beatrice & Virgil play. It's a neat way to treat the novel's various layers, while at the same time drawing us deeper into the play as the action moves further upstage. The telescoping set, designed by Amy Keith, is enhanced by John Thompson's rich lighting and Christian Barry's salient sound effects.
Garton Stanley's direction of her actors is less confident. Atkins, a Toronto favourite, and Brault, a veteran of the Ottawa scene, are surprisingly pallid. Atkins does little to make his Henry interesting. Brault, with an old man's stiff gait and a deliberately generic European accent, gives a stronger characterization, but he's missing the necessary sinister note. The two are more effective as Beatrice (Atkins) and Virgil (Brault), especially in the moving final scenes.
I was never sure why Martel felt the need to write an animal fable about the Holocaust, especially given that Art Spiegelman had already done it so brilliantly with Maus. I left the play version of Beatrice & Virgil impressed once again by some of the author's vivid prose, but no more enlightened as to his purpose.