Review: Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad

The National Arts Centre and Tarragon Theatre (Toronto) present Scorched By Wajdi Mouawad
Directed by Richard Rose
English Language translation by Linda Gaboriau of Wajdi Mouawad’s Incendies English-Language translation commissioned and developed by the NAC English Theatre
Play Development program with support from the Marti Maraden Canadian Play Creation FundSet and Lighting Design : Graeme S. Thomson
Costume Design: Teresa Przybylski
Music Coach: Maryem Tollar
Sound: Todd Charlton
Assistant Director: Melissa Haller

The Cast:
Sawda/Elhame/Must Sing: Valerie Buhagiar
Simon/Wahab (age 25): Sergio Di Zio
Nihad/Ralph (middle aged): Paul Fauteux
Antoine and as cast: David Fox
Nawal (age 40) Jihane (mother) The Woman Who Sings: Kelli Fox
Jeanne (age 25): Sophie Goulet
Nawal (age 14-19): Janick Hébert
Nawal (age 60-65)/Nazira: Nicola Lipman
Alphonse Lebel/Militia Man: Alon NashmanStage Manager: Kathryn Westoll
Assistant Stage Manager: Stéfanie SéguinPerformance reviewed: April 14, 7:30 pm
Run: April 4 – 21, 2007

Stunning. That was a word that came to mind last night as Waji Mouawad’s Scorched unfolded on the sand-strewn stage of the NAC Theatre. Other words were classic, magnificent, tragedy (in the ancient Greek sense), and the phrase “at last”. All season at the NAC English Theatre, I have had the sense that with few exceptions, we were watching “finger exercises”, as a string of sometimes remarkable, sometimes not very good one act disappointments unfolded. Patrons voted with their feet as subscriptions fell by twenty-six percent (according to the Ottawa Citizen). That is almost forgotten and forgiven after viewing this two act masterpiece, complete with intermission.

First, the script. I have not seen, nor read Mouawad’s Incendies, but it must be a brilliant piece of stage writing to have inspired Linda Gaboriau’s stunning, witty and visceral translation of it. The script poses a problem I know well: when you are writing such a “down” story, how do you keep it moving without descending into a morass of maudlin whining? Fortunately, Mouawad took the classic solution, brilliantly interpreted by Gaboriau: you insert a clown. The story concerns twins, a brother and sister, who discover that their mother left a perplexing will. Determined to discover what could possibly explain such a strange document, the sister twin journeys to the mother’s native village in the battle-torn middle east, where civil war, massacre of women and children and revenge constitute a way of life. In a multi-layered overlapping of time and visceral action, we see past and present play out simultaneously in an astonishingly well-crafted montage of death, wit, irony, pathos and ultimately tragedy of classic proportions. The script dangerously employs several long monologues, which are effectively both gripping and more than dramatically plausible and moving.

The characters are well-drawn: There is the defiant, physical male twin, Simone, played by Sergio Di Zio who does the opening obscene reaction to his mother’s wishes with all the angst and even a twisted kind of schadenfreude (to use Vanity Fair’s favorite word of a few years ago — why not? I’m being excessive, in tune with the event) that reeks of hubris, especially when he says “I will not cry for my mother’s death!” We know he will later have to change his tune. Part of the tension in this play is derived from the determination of his twin sister, Janine (played with focuses intensity by Sophie Goulet) to convince him to take part in the quest their mother requested in her will: they must deliver sealed letters to their vanished brother and their father. We see the mother in flashbacks that take place on stage simultaneously with Janine’s search. Nawal, the mysterious mother, is played by three actresses: Jackie Hebert, Kelli Fox, and Nicola Lipman, each representing a different stage in the mother’s life. I am not clear on the reason for making this casting distinction; any of the actresses could have played the whole character, although I think Hebert would be a bit young to handle the older Nawal easily. I thought Lipman was too young to look “60-65” as she is described in the program, particularly when one considers the life she is depicting: she should have looked eighty. We see the hopeful, loving then devastated Nawal; we see the tormented tough, stubborn, still principled Narwal, and finally, the haunted, tragic Nawal. Yet each of these actors takes the different nuances of her particular phase and makes it work in her own way. Fox a significant actor in her own right, is the most well-known of the three, having recently appeared in the front row of The Actors Studio interview of her brother Michael J. Fox. Finally, among the major significant characters, we have the clown: Alphonse Lebel, the Avocat, who is a comic character worthy of Shakespeare or Moliere. At once he motivates and advises the twins; yet he also generates significant comic relief with his malapropisms worthy of Dogberry, and his actions such as sprinkling the lawn during a serious meeting. Here is a script that is brilliant on the page.

The cast is a wonderful ensemble. In a masterful turn, David Fox plays a series of amazing characters, managing transitions and persona distinctions superbly. He played a variety of distinctly different characters, most of them elderly, with insight and sensitivity; and where there could have been a horrible falling into stereotype, there was no such hint, but masterfully developed people who worked anecdote and emotion wonderfully, and made each scene they inhabited all the more authentic and effective. Alon Nashman inhabited the character of the Avocat. He was at once serious, compelling and whimsical. There were so many delightful malapropisms I can hardly recall a specific one. And they were delivered with a lovely delicacy that totally balanced the tragic themes lying underneath. Nasman’s little Avocat was part legal eagle, part dancer. One began to look forward to his appearances, knowing it was going to be fun; yet these comic turns in no way distracted from the heavy and ironical themes of death, torture, lost love and revenge that are at play here. It is to the credit of the cast and the director, Richard Rose, that all of these elements stayed balanced, as this is a complicated scenario with many forces that need balancing; otherwise, the whole thing falls apart. I should think this play would be totally beyond the ability of community theatre to produce successfully. Paul Fauteux had a relatively short turn in the part of Nihad, yet his is a pivotal character in the piece. We see him mainly as a ruthless sniper, mowing down soldiers, women and children indiscriminately, although he does indicate fatuously that he would draw the line at certain famous people he admires, such as Elizabeth Taylor. Fauteux really develops the cynicism that is necessary for the pre-climactic later scene, when he turns a very serious trial into a genuine farce. It is here that Mouawad ties together the irony of clowning and tragedy, both prominent themes in the play, and Fauteux brings just the perfect nuance of braggadocio to the part when he declares that his trial is boring and dons a clown’s red nose. By this point, Mouawad has loaded so much meaning into everything, that each word, each action hits the audience like a level four storm building. All of this atmosphere has been assisted in its generation by the rest of the ensemble who have repeatedly been slaughtered, blown up, and otherwise terrified by a civil war of revenge that seems to have no end possible.

Richard Rose, the Director, has choreographed the action carefully: large counterclockwise ovals of walking and chasing swirling though scenes taking place in other times, take on significance because of the startling juxtaposition. As well, the sound plot, in which a startling street noise becomes a startling battle sound, combines with the action to layer meanings and get the story told effectively and with brutally vivid directness.

Without giving anything away, this play has a powerful ending that is carefully planted, foreshadowed and generated through thematic structure and plot arc. It is engrossing and throughly satisfying. I was unabashedly the first to stand at the curtain call. I am usually reluctant to join a standing ovation, because I think they are too easily bestowed by recent audiences: I have seen standing ovations for plays I could hardly wait to end. It is too bad the Saturday night audience was so sparse; I believe close to half the seats were vacant. I believe that is the result of the previous season of short fare. The coming season that Hinton has announced appears to take patrons’ reactions into account: he has announced a season of classics, which generally means meaty full-length plays. I certainly hope so; I enjoyed discussing this play at intermission, I enjoyed my Orangina and ice; I hope we see more works like this one: it was well worth the long drive.

About riverwriter

Poet, playwright, duplicate bridge player, website designer, cottager, husband, father, grandfather, former athlete, carpenter, computer helper for my friends, theatre designer, backstage polymath, retired teacher of highschool English, drama, art, a baritone singer in a barbershop quartet, who knows what else? wordcurrents is on Facebook: Doug also has a Facebook page, "Incognitio", related to his novels.
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