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Alphonse is a 1996 solo show about the unchosen change of adolescence by Lebanese-Quebecois playwright Wajdi Mouawad.Handout

  • Title: Alphonse
  • Written by: Wajdi Mouawad
  • Director: Alon Nashman
  • Actors: Alon Nashman and Kaleb Alexander
  • Company: Theaturtle in partnership with Shakespeare in Action
  • Venue: Dufferin Grove Park
  • City: Toronto, ON
  • Year: To Aug. 30, 2020

“To change is to disappear one day and then fill the space with yourself.”

Even in his lesser plays, Wajdi Mouawad always manages to write a line that plants itself in your mind, takes root and grows in meaning the more you water and fertilize it through memory.

This one, which resonates particularly in this unchosen time of change, comes from Alphonse, a 1996 solo show about the unchosen change of adolescence by the Lebanese-Quebecois playwright.

The one-person show is being performed outdoors in a Toronto park by two people: Alon Nashman (who also directs) and Kaleb Alexander, in alternating performances.

Alphonse is “the first in-person performance of a play in Toronto since March” according to co-producers Theaturtle and Shakespeare in Action, who figured out a way to jump through all the public-safety hoops to make this possible, first at Memorial Park in Weston and now at Dufferin Grove Park closer to downtown.

A maximum audience of 75 is allowed, masked and spaced out, on the ground next to the children’s playground in Dufferin Grove. (Bring your own virus-free cushion.)

Lindsay Ann Black is credited as set and costume designer, but the set is mostly a pre-existing structure used by day camps. It looks like a giant Smurf house, which is perfect for a play that takes place half in the world we call reality and half in the world we call imagination.

Mouawad braids together two strands of story in this highly symbolic play about a 14-year-old named Alphonse who goes missing one day, and gets lost somewhere between childhood and adulthood.

In one, Alphonse walks down a country road, telling himself fantastical tales about his alter ego Pierre-Paul-René, a “gentle boy with a one-note voice who was never surprised by anything.”

In the other, Victor, a police detective, interviews Alphonse’s family, teachers, schoolmates and neighbours as part of his investigation into the boy’s disappearance.

The audience searches for Alphonse, too, in the gap between the cop’s questions and boy’s imagination, the facts and the fantasy. Mouawad asks: In which of these realms is the essence of a human being truly to be found?

The symbolic nature of Alphonse, both the character and the play, is accentuated in the performance delivered by Nashman, whom I saw in the afternoon on Thursday.

Nashman has been performing this show off and on with his company Theaturtle for 20 years now, since originally workshopping Shelley Tepperman’s translation of it.

A contemporary of Mouawad’s at the National Theatre School in the early 1990s, the actor has become one of the foremost interpreters of his former classmate’s characters in the English language. His indelible Mouawad-ian turns include a different Alphonse in the masterpiece Scorched at Tarragon Theatre in 2007; and David, another individual missing between two competing ideas of himself, in Birds of a Kind at the Stratford Festival in 2019.

Fond of sharp physical shifts and allergic to cheap sentiment, Nashman is definitely attuned to the metre and meatiness of Mouawad’s language, while always avoiding delivering it as poetry.

But, though Nashman has two decades of experience in Alphonse’s multiple roles, I was more captivated by Alexander’s performance – which I, perhaps helping matters, saw on Thursday evening as the day wandered into and got lost in the night.

There was something in Nashman’s practised performance that almost took the meaning of the play for granted, came across as muscle memory in moments, and left me unmoved.

By contrast, Alexander’s performance had a hiccup or two, but was full of discovery and feeling. I preferred the sensitivity he brought to his depiction of the parade of minor characters, too.

Alphonse’s family seemed a harsh caricature out of Roald Dahl in Nashman’s performance, to the extent that you partially wished the boy would stay lost forever. Alexander, however, fleshed the context of these flawed characters out – making the father Middle Eastern and the mother Caribbean, and Alphonse’s brother’s concern for his missing sibling palpable.

Part of it may simply be that the naiveté in this early play of Mouawad’s simply sits better in a younger body. (That profound line about change? It’s spoken by an anthropomorphic cave to Alphonse’s imaginary friend.)

Neither Alexander and Nashman are strangers to performing outdoors in Toronto; they were both part of a particularly good company of actors in Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park back in 2016.

No offense to the Bard, but it is a pleasure to see a play by someone else in the open air. Enough folks agree that Alphonse is sold out through the end of the weekend already. You can still check for returns, however – or join the children peeking over for free from the playground.

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