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Turn your attention away from Homegrown at SummerWorks

SummerWorks Festival

(At various venues In Toronto until August 15) Quebec playwright Olivier Choinière's Bliss premiered in Montreal in 2007; now it is getting its English-Canadian premiere at Toronto's SummerWorks festival. But the play's path from point A to point B wasn't a straightforward trip down the 401.

Indeed, somewhat surprisingly, it had its English-language premiere at London's Royal Court Theatre two years ago in a translation by none other than the well-regarded British playwright Caryl Churchill. It's great to finally get a chance to look at this version on this side of the ocean.

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Three actors dressed like Walmart employees stand on an elevated platform, excitingly telling the audience a story about Céline Dion they've gleaned from glossy magazines. A fourth Walmart employee named Caro (a seemingly possessed Delphine Bienvenu) stands apart with a microphone, interrupting from time to time to clarify or correct the tale - or send it in an unexpected direction.

Gradually, this star-struck tale about Céline's pregnancy diverges further and further from reality until it morphs into a horrific story about one of her fans, Isabelle, who is kept locked in her room and abused by her father, mother and brother. The bright lights of Las Vegas flood into the dark of a Josef Fritzl-style dungeon and the effect is disorienting - it's like the ink from two pages of a trashy celebrity-and-crime tabloid have bled together in the rain.

In the third part of the play, Bliss takes us into the Walmart where these characters work - there we meet Caro, a lonely cashier despised by her coworkers whose only uplift in her life is Céline Dion's music. She is the link between the two other women and connects them with her strange powers (or vivid imagination).

The juxtaposition of easy cultural whipping boys like Walmart and Céline Dion suggests an obvious satire of commercialism, but Choinière takes us in a less hackneyed direction. Céline Dion, here, is not a figure of fun, but a genuine beacon of hope for the hopeless, someone who speaks to a class of people mocked by the elites, even those who claim to speak for them. Through Bliss, Choinière subtly seems to suggest that there's other a small distance between the snobbish belittling of Céline fans to full-on bullying and ultimately more violent forms of dehumanization.

With a stylistic, nightmarish script that builds a transatlantic bridge between the work of the U.K.'s Martin Crimp and Quebec's Larry Tremblay, Bliss gets a strong, promise-showing production by Steven McCarthy, who originally staged it at the National Theatre School.

My only real quibble: while Churchill's translation is solid, it is full of Britishisms like "newspaper cuttings", "changing queues" and "press officer." Since McCarthy has cast French-Canadian actors in the roles (plus himself), this has the unfortunate effect of making it seem as if all the characters learned English from Jacques Parizeau.

Perhaps because of the attention heaped on Homegrown, Catherine Frid's Prime-Minister-disapproved play about of convicted terrorist Shareef Abdulhaleem, this year's edition of the SummerWorks festival has seemed themed around the question: How do we justify violence to others and to ourselves? There's more to be gleaned on this subject from Euripides and Tolstoy.

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In his play Iphigenia at Aulis, Euripides dramatised the moment in the Trojan War where King Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia in order for raise favorable winds to blow the Greek fleet onwards to Troy.

In Nicolas Billon's adaptation - an odd mix of prosaic and poetic - Agamemnon and his brother Menaleus become so convinced of the righteousness of this killing that they see Iphiginia transformed into a deer right before her throat is slit. In the original, the Gods really do substitute an animal for Iphigenia and spirit her away, but here this miracle is called into doubt.

Under the direction of Alan Dilworth, who most recently impressed with Erin Shields's Greek tragedy-inspired If We Were Birds, the cast perform the play with minimal movement and restrained emotion. The formal style can sometimes be inadvertently comic, as in Stephen Bogaert's awkward Agamemnon who, in one of Jung-Hye Kim's almost all-white costumes, looks like Fido Dido covered in flour.

But David Fox is wonderfully affecting as the Old Man who is the conscience of the play, Sarah Orenstein is strong as furious mother Clytemnestra, Stephen Gartner is an amusingly cocky Achilles, and Eryn Murman is absolutely riveting as Iphigenia. She embraces martyrdom with a fervour - the fire in her eyes as she surrenders herself willingly to her death is scorching.

At the bottom of these characters' blindingly white costumes, bits of black are seeping up. How long before it covers them?

Pozdnyshev, the protagonist of Leo Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata, has been swallowed up by it. Played by Ted Dykstra in his own adaptation of Tolstoy's story at SummerWorks, he has killed his wife after becoming consumed by jealousy when she duetted on Beethoven Violin Sonata 9 with another man. He's been found not guilty of this crime of passion, but a verdict is just a verdict.

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Dykstra gives an astonishing performance as he attempts to justify his act to the audience and to himself. He finds blame everywhere but himself, especially in contraception for divorcing sex from babies and music for making people feel emotions that haven't naturally sprung up from inside them. There are, of course, still people with us who think sex and art need to be tightly controlled.

Two more quick recommendations: Haunted Hillbilly, Montreal's highly touted SideMart Theatrical Grocery's musical adaptation of Derek McCormack's story about a rising country singer seduced by a gay vampire couturier named Nudie, is a fun and unique show. I was also enthralled by transgendered actor Nina Arsenault's I Was Barbie, her true story about playing the famous doll at a gala in the toy's honour held in Toronto. Through a haze of Ativan and champagne, she gives us a penetrating peek behind the scenes at a party full of models, fashion journalists, rappers and Ben Mulroney - it's gonzo journalism that would make Hunter S. Thompson proud.

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