This is a tale of two plays. Tideline begins as a bravely funny, disturbing meditation on a son’s struggle with his father’s death. It ends as a political parable, potentially quite powerful but dragged down by its tedious length and endless overwriting.
Wajdi Mouawad, the hottest playwright/director to come out of Quebec since Robert Lepage, gets his west coast debut in Shelley Tepperman’s excellent translation of Tideline. The play shows flashes of Mouawad’s brilliance. It receives a highly polished, superbly acted co-production from Touchstone and neworldtheatre, co-directed by Camyar Chai and Katrina Dunn, who also create the show’s innovative design. All it finally needs is a rigorous editor.
When Wilfred (an intense, passionate Daniel Arnold) learns that his estranged father has died, it sends him on a bizarre odyssey of guilt and personal discovery. Mouawad weaves a strange dreamscape of comic fantasy and deep psychological trauma.
Wilfred painfully claims his father’s body and struggles to understand his relationship to his father’s life and his mother’s death. At the same time, he imagines his own life as a ridiculous movie. At regular intervals a grotesque film crew appears to shoot a scene, and a medieval knight (Michael Scholar, Jr.) pops in to save him from his enemies. Strangest of all, the corpse of his father (Zinaid Memisevic) speaks to Wilfred—sometimes comically (“I may be dead but I’m not an idiot”), often earnestly—leading him on his journey.
The journey takes them to his parents’ country, where Wilfred decides to bury his father “in order to reconcile the living and the dead.” This is the long second play. The unnamed country is certainly Lebanon, Mouawad’s original homeland. Ravaged by wars, it’s a land of death and despair. Wilfred collects a group of angry, damaged followers who all eventually claim the corpse as their collective father, and his burial comes to represent their liberation from the past. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come before a lot of windy speechifying and three or four false endings.
The large cast does an excellent job negotiating the jarring contrasts between the ridiculous and the sublime. Medina Hahn and Parnelli Parnes are very affecting as the younger versions of Wilfred’s father and mother, and Jonathon Young, Donald Adams, Una Memisevic and Almeera Jiwa vividly portray a range of characters.
The semi-circular set, framed by vertical white nylon ropes like bars, and semi-transparent black curtains, creates a versatile space as both the external world of politics and atrocity and the inside of Wilfred’s head. A track running inside the perimeter of the semi-circle accommodates a kind of metal wagon, pushed on and off stage by actors, providing a low-tech medium for entrances and exits. Jonathan Ryder’s strong lighting and Owen Belton’s sound and music help shape Mouawad’s epic vision.
If only it were a half-hour shorter.