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Jesus Chrysler: a play in search of a meaning

1.5 out of 4 stars

With the Occupy movement and this week's sentencing of G20 protesters, the timing could not be better for a play about anti-capitalist activists in Toronto – even if it happens to be set in the Toronto of the 1930s.

Sadly, Jesus Chrysler squanders the opportunity to find a parallel between Depression-era radicals and those protesting against economic inequities today. Worse, it fails in its aim to illuminate its two historical characters, thirties rabble-rousers Dorothy (Dee) Livesay and Eugenia (Jim) Watts.

Although Livesay would go on to become a major Canadian poet, Watts is a half-forgotten figure fully deserving of dramatic treatment. As a young communist and early feminist, she produced controversial agitprop theatre – including the legendary, shut-down-by-the-cops production Eight Men Speak – and later served as a Canadian correspondent, ambulance driver and republican propagandist during the Spanish Civil War.

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These, however, are minor details in Beagan's murky memory play. She is more concerned with speculating on a romantic relationship between Watts and Livesay, girlhood BFFs, and bisexuals. To that end, she has imagined a love triangle that ultimately drove the two women apart in the years before Watts headed off to Spain.

It's the mid-1930s and Jim (Margaret Evans) is preparing to mount the Toronto premiere of Clifford Odets's Waiting for Lefty, while trying to coax a reluctant Dee (Aviva Armour-Ostroff) to act in the production. Into their lives stumbles a shy farm boy from Alberta named Nate (Jeffrey Wetsch), who falls for Dee.

Jim, afraid Dee will be lured away, seduces Nate. She also recruits him for the cast of Lefty. There's a suggestion at one point that he might not be an innocent hick but rather an infiltrator in the Communist ranks. That intriguing possibility is never pursued. It's just one of the play's many dangling threads.

Tara Beagan, whose previous works include the Dora-winning Thy Neighbour's Wife, tries for a multilayered structure, and ends up sacrificing clarity. The story is told in retrospect from the fragmented, at times cryptic, memories of both Jim and Dee. To further muddle things, their voices are occasionally heard on the radio – evoking Jim's wartime broadcasts from Spain – and remembered scenes are re-enacted as a play-within-the-play.

The script includes scraps of Odets's dialogue and, if I'm not mistaken, Livesay's poetry, too. The Jesus Chrysler of the title – a name that sounds like a bad 1990s rock band – turns out to be the jokey sobriquet for Jim's car, but otherwise has no discernible significance.

Director Michael Wheeler and his three actors seem to be as uncertain about the play as is the audience. Wetsch comes off best, maybe because his naive Nate is supposed to be confused a lot of the time. Armour-Ostroff's Dee is frequently relegated to the second level of Scott Penner's two-tiered set, further straining what little chemistry she has with Evans.

At least the rugged Wetsch and Armour-Ostroff (whose brunette features resemble Livesay's) are right for their roles. Evans is all wrong as the cross-dressing Jim. Livesay once described her friend as "willful and wayward," and Beagan has conceived of her as a confident masculine type, strutting about in trousers and tie, guzzling booze and chain-smoking. Evans instead comes across as sensitive and melancholy, like a delicate private-school boy. Her bold seduction of Nate, in which she undresses him and dons his clothing, isn't sexy; it's awkward and silly.

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That scene and others are poorly staged by Wheeler, who also takes a half-hearted stab at imitating Waiting for Lefty by trying to make the spectators part of the play. A portion of the audience is seated onstage, where the main level of Penner's set suggests a rehearsal hall. The second tier is a cross-section of Dee's apartment, complete with a three-piece bathroom. Penner's design involves an impressive reconfiguring of Passe Muraille's cramped Backspace, but it's a wasted effort. That bathroom is there only for decoration; and the one scene that does involve a bathtub is mimed on another part of the set.

So much of this play feels ill-considered. It talks a lot about passion, private and political, yet shows very little. Its characters never fully come to life, and yet we're asked to feel for them in the end. As a vehicle to transport us to the past, Jesus Chrysler never gets beyond first gear.

Jesus Chrysler

  • Written by Tara Beagan
  • Directed by Michael Wheeler
  • Starring Margaret Evans, Aviva Armour-Ostroff and Jeffrey Wetsch
  • A Praxis Theatre production
  • At Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto

Jesus Chrysler runs until Dec. 11.

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