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Akosua Amo-Adem, from left, Zorana Sadiq and Helen Taylor in Helen's Necklace.

Michael Cooper

  • Title: Helen’s Necklace
  • Written by Carole Fréchette
  • Director: Ken Gass
  • Actors: Akosua Amo-Adem, Zorana Sadiq, Helen Taylor
  • Company: Canadian Rep Theatre
  • Venue: Berkeley Street Theatre; Burlington Performing Arts Centre 
  • City: Toronto; Burlington, Ont.
  • Year: To Nov. 11 in Toronto; Nov. 15-18 in Burlington

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Director Ken Gass has finally found Helen’s Necklace.

Quebec playwright Carole Fréchette’s 2002 drama, about a Canadian tourist searching for a lost string of pearls in an unnamed Middle Eastern city, has never quite landed right with me.

The short, poetic two-hander examines Western privilege – but it has often struck me, despite the self-awareness and empathy of the writing, as an example of it.

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In previous productions I’ve seen, a well-known white female actor has taken centre stage as Helen, while a lesser-known male actor of colour has played all the Middle Eastern characters – a construction worker, a grieving mother, a refugee. These are all the people Helen encounters on a taxi ride looking for a “lighter than air” piece of jewellery that somehow slipped off while she was in town for a conference.

The cast of three women alternate and sometimes overlap as Helen – and take turns playing the men and women she encounters.

Michael Cooper

Helen’s Necklace has often appeared like the dramatic equivalent of a lazy dispatch from a foreign correspondent – where all the local colour is provided by interviews with taxi drivers.

In the past, I’ve ended up wanting to wring Helen’s neck when she repeats the show’s recurring mantra (as translated by John Murrell): “We can’t go on living like this!”

Gass’s lovely, low-key new production for the Canadian Rep Theatre company – in Toronto for a brief run before it heads to Burlington, Ont. – really opens up Fréchette’s writing to broader meaning, however.

The director, formerly of Factory Theatre, has cast three women in the play: Akosua Amo-Adem, Zorana Sadiq and Helen Taylor. They alternate and sometimes overlap as Helen – and take turns playing the men and women she encounters.

When Sadiq plays Helen, a different conception of the character emerges – of a woman who has grown up in a cold, peaceful, northern country instead of a hot, war-torn, Middle Eastern one, simply by circumstance of birth.

Michael Cooper

Taylor, a white actor, gives us the Helen I’ve grown to dislike over various productions of the play. She portrays her as a fragile, flighty woman who in a foreign country (foreign, to her) only sees those around her after she loses sight of her necklace. She’s the very picture of entitlement.

When Sadiq plays Helen, however, a different conception of the character emerges – of a woman who has grown up in a cold, peaceful, northern country instead of a hot, war-torn, Middle Eastern one, simply by circumstance of birth. There’s something compellingly dislocated about Sadiq’s performance, very guarded, like the necklace she lost was a shield she was using to protect herself on this trip.

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Then there’s the Helen played by Amo-Adem, a black actor who carries all the characters she incarnates with great power. I felt deeply for her Helen’s loss, for the freedom and the confidence that this particular necklace represented to her – for her struggle to relate that feeling to the larger losses she encounters on her journey.

Amo-Adem helped me understand that Fréchette’s play is as much about the borders between the inner life and the outer world as between this country and that one. How can it be that we will cry over a misplaced object but might not over a starving child around the corner or around the world? How can we weigh one emotion against another – without turning against feeling altogether?

The Helen played by Amo-Adem, a black actor who carries all the characters she incarnates with great power.

Michael Cooper

“You came here to cry, lady,” a man played by Amo-Adem chastises Helen. And then, later, as Helen, Amo-Adem cries.

The triple, fluid casting creates complexity – or reveals it – and the diversity of the actors reduces the othering aspect of Fréchette’s writing.

Aside from his casting, Gass’s staging is simple – five white rehearsal cubes dot the stage like the white pearls of Helen’s necklace she tells us are held together by invisible string. André du Toit’s lighting helps fill out the stage.

Almost a decade ago, I reviewed director Claude Poissant’s transformation of another Québécois play, Larry Tremblay’s The Dragonfly of Chicoutimi, from a solo show into a five-person play – and mused about a battalion of Billy Bishops going to war, or an army of Daniel MacIvor’s Monsters. I didn’t imagine a host of Helens, but I’m glad Gass did. More playing around with Canadian plays in revivals, please.

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