Claudia is twelve going on forty, extremely precocious and too intelligent for her own good. She struggles with the agonies of adolescence, her parents’ divorce and her father’s remarriage. She’s desperately unhappy but buoyant and resourceful.
Claudia is already famous in Toronto and other cities where Kristen Thomson’s beautifully written solo show has played to great acclaim for the past seven years. Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre now brings I, Claudia to Richmond’s Gateway, where I caught it in a preview. It’s easy to see what the fuss is about.
Claudia tells us most of her story herself. But typically, the lone actor also plays a range of secondary characters who flesh out the central narrative. We meet Drachman, the Eastern European janitor whose boiler room in the school basement is Claudia’s sanctuary; her grandfather Douglas; and Leslie, her father’s new mate. Performed originally by Thomson herself, these roles are vividly re-created by the remarkably talented Liisa Repo-Martell in a stylish production by the show’s original director, Chris Abraham.
Theatrically, I, Claudia is most obviously marked by the commedia-style facial masks the characters wear, covering all but their mouths. A resonant reminder of the social masks we all hide behind as well as the traditions of theatre itself, the masks are strikingly strange to look at. They also serve to keep Claudia’s strong emotions from becoming sentimentally stagey. Her anger and grief are all the more powerful locked behind the static public face.
At first Claudia seems like just a goofy, if very smart kid, with her pet goldfish and problems at school. Repo-Martell textures the character with a variety of delightfully quirky vocalisms, and Thomson gives her dialogue that’s both dense and funny. But soon nothing is funny for Claudia, who can hardly bear her dad’s betrayal.
The other characters provide a counterpoint to Claudia’s story that suggests that life is all about change and adaptation. Claudia hates loud, boozy Leslie, who stole her father away. But we get to see Leslie’s own journey, and hear grandfather Douglas’ matter-of-factly profound, beautiful monologue on the indignities of growing old and losing his wife to Alzheimer’s.
Drachman is another great character. Now a janitor, he was an actor and director in his homeland: “I was speaking in images to a mutilated nation and now I am sweeping your dust bunnies.” The red theatre curtain he has brought with him to Canada sets the stage for Claudia’s personal drama.
Jeff Logue’s atmospheric lighting and Abraham’s striking sound design add significant theatrical dimension to the show. The music helps cover the long scene changes during which Repo-Martell switches characters, costumes and masks before our eyes. Eye Claudia. Aye, Claudia.