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Leslie Hope in Liv Stein

Cylla von Tiedemann

3.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Liv Stein
Written by
Nino Haratischwili
Genre
Play
Directed by
Matthew Jocelyn
Actors
Leslie Hope
Company
Canadian Stage
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Sunday, February 12, 2017

If you're feeling superior or smug about America and its "post-truth" President, get thee to Liv Stein at Canadian Stage.

Mischievously directed by Matthew Jocelyn, Georgian-German playwright Nino Haratischwili's play is about what we choose to believe and why – and challenges an audience to consider just how eagerly and easily we gobble up "alternative facts" when we're sitting in plush seats at the theatre.

Liv Stein (Leslie Hope) is a famous pianist who has given up on her art after the death of her son, Henri – despite pleading from her ex-husband Emil (Geraint Wyn Davies) and manager Simone (Caroline Gillis). One day, however, a bold young woman named Lore (Sheila Ingabire-Isaro) shows up at Liv's door and insists that she teach her to master the piano – dangling stories about Liv's late son, with whom she went to boarding school, as payment.

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At first, Haratischwili's 2008 play, having its English-language premiere here, seems like a conventional drama about an older artist challenged and rejuvenated by mentoring a younger one – with a twist not just visibly coming down the track, but honking its horn as it does. And yet, there's something off-kilter about Liv Stein from the get-go. The language is strange and distanced, for one thing: The young playwright – originally from Tbilisi, Georgia; now based in Hamburg – writes in her second language and there's another level of distance added in a translation by Birgit Schreyer Duarte that may be new, but features British curses.

The characters behave less than naturalistically as well – with none so emotionally erratic as Emil Stein, played by Wyn Davies alternating between domineering and docile so quickly that you might get whiplash. About a third of the way into this one-act play, however, the script's true nature reveals itself as the action starts to head in unexpected directions. This isn't a bourgeois drama about classical music and grief in the end – but an over-the-top soap opera about the slipperiness of truth and, as Emil keeps saying, "the seductiveness of youth."

Jocelyn's production, which has been stylish but restrained at first, suddenly breaks with the conventions it has set up. During a startling transition, trip hop is substituted for classical music, stage manager cues are spoken out loud – and the cast fills the stage to rehearse or reprise all the major physical actions of the play.

With the help of metatheatrical lighting by Michael Walton, a living-room set by Debra Hanson that nods at Greek tragedy and an ironic sound design by Lyon Smith, Jocelyn plays with the audience's suspension of disbelief. Whereas in the past the director's provocations have had an arrogant air to them, here they confidently toy with the actual, rather than imagined, expectations of a Toronto theatre audience.

The acting, heightened, is anchored by a feline performance by Hope, who has an appealingly deep stage voice and prowls the set with physical prowess. Though she's mostly known to Canadians from TV (Suits), her scenes with Wyn Davies, a Stratford favourite, feel like a couple of stage veterans facing off.

On its own, Haratischwili's play could be seen as immature – but Jocelyn's production, his best since taking over Canadian Stage as artistic and managing director, is smart and sly enough to transform it into a thoroughly enjoyable, unpredictable evening.

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