HELEN'S NECKLACE
by Carol Fréchette,
trans. John Murrell
Pi Theatre
Vancouver East Cultural Centre
April 7-16
$30/$22
604-280-3311
www.ticketmaster.ca

A North American woman, probably Québecoise, searches the streets of a nameless Middle Eastern city for a faux-pearl necklace she has lost. It soon becomes clear that the necklace represents more to her than just a piece of jewelry. In the midst of some profound personal crisis she hopes that finding the necklace might help restore the missing pieces of her life. But Helen finds something much different than she bargained for, as she meets various inhabitants of this city wracked by violence and losses greater than she could ever imagine.

Playwright Carol Fréchette seems to specialize in narcissistic middle-aged women whose self-obsession becomes a vehicle for deeper understanding. Fresh from last year’s triumphant production of Fréchette’s Elisa’s Skin, Pi Theatre director Del Surjik has once again given us an exquisite treatment of her work in John Murrell’s excellent colloquial translation. Though Helen’s Necklace doesn’t trust its own intelligence enough to avoid becoming over-explicit, it delivers important ideas in elegant theatrical form.

Helen (Elizabeth McLaughlin) tells her story as she cruises through the city with taxi driver Nabil, played by Sanjay Talwar who morphs into all the other locals. At first Helen seems the classic ugly North American, ignorant of local language and geography, bitching about the heat, the traffic, the music. But when she asks a man about her necklace and he tells her about his loss—his house bombed to rubble one night—her consciousness begins to alter.

Helen’s sympathy and understanding dawn more clearly in a powerful scene with a woman in full burqa searching for her son’s red rubber ball. While tremendously moving, the scene doesn’t allow us full emotional identification with the woman because she is played by the obviously male Talwar. So instead of being allowed to indulge in pathos, we’re forced, like Helen, to think about what it means.

Unfortunately, Fréchette then seems to lose faith in her audience’s ability to understand implications. A man who has lived his whole life in a refugee camp expresses his despair in slogans. He demands that Helen repeat, “We cannot go on living like this.” Confronting her Western liberal guilt, she then explicates what it has all come to mean for her. I agree that we ignore the suffering of the Third World, but overt didacticism rarely makes for politically effective theatre.

McLaughlin is fine as Helen. That hers is not a bravura performance works perfectly; she is not the story but just a filter for that of others. Talwar does a wonderful job in every role, differentiating them subtly, adding humour where necessary. Boris Sichon provides remarkable live music and percussion on a range of exotic instruments and is beautifully integrated into the flow of movement across David Roberts’ functional set, a series of stone forms covered by a diaphanous veil, standing for ruins both ancient and contemporary.

Jerry Wasserman

 
 
                       
 
 
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