january 2019 | Volume 175
Photo credit: Javier Sotres.
LION IN THE STREETS
by Judith Thompson
Theatre at UBC
Telus Studio, UBC
Jan. 17-Feb. 2
Lion in the Streets is one of the strangest, most powerful plays in the Canadian canon. In Judith Thompson’s dark expressionist drama, first produced in 1990, the ghost of a nine-year-old girl roams the streets of Toronto. She observes a series of characters trapped in linked scenes of anger and desperation. At the end she finds and confronts the man who murdered her seventeen years earlier.
UBC’s senior BFA acting students take on this challenging work in the equally challenging Telus Studio space. In the preview I saw, MFA directing student Michelle Thorne’s production hit some of the play’s high notes spectacularly.
Isobel, the murdered child, occupies the centre of the play. In Thompson’s script she comes from a Portuguese immigrant family. Here, she and her family are Filipino, although the setting remains Toronto and the time still 1990. Reference to a youngish male character’s experiences in the 1950s is jarring.
Sophia Paskalidis is superb as Isobel. Addressing the audience and other characters, only some of whom see her, she tries to find someone to take her “home,” realizes to her horror that she is dead, vows to be a warrior on behalf of another woman (“I am your harmy!”), and finally has to decide whether to kill or forgive her murderer. Paskalidis captures both the confused, vulnerable child and the avenging angel in a compelling performance.
Isobel’s decisions at the end are influenced by the scenes she observes along the way. The most potent and excruciating are skillfully rendered. In the opening scene Cassandra Bourchier plays wife and mother Sue with equal parts rage and abjection, defending her marriage with a brutal attack on her husband’s girlfriend, then debasing herself in a humiliating attempt at seducing her husband.
Drew Carlson is terrific as daycare worker Rhonda in a scene of class warfare, countering the accusations of an angry parent (Daelyn Lester-Serafina, also very good) about her decision to give the kids sweets. The play’s mesmerizing tour de force features fabulous work by Elizabeth Young as Scarlett, a wheelchair-bound woman with severe cerebral palsy, and Anni Ramsay as repressed reporter Christine who interviews her.
Also turning in fine performances are Laura Reynolds as Rhonda’s cancer-ridden friend Joanne, imagining her ideal death, and Drew Ogle, morphing into Isobel’s mother who surrealistically experiences her husband’s death under the wheels of a subway train.
It’s no coincidence that all these scenes but one occur in the first act. The exception, the Scarlett-Christine confrontation, is an early scene in act two. There’s no build to Thompson’s play structure: each scene just offers a variation on the “lion” of rage or regret. By the second act we’ve gotten the idea, and director Thorne needs to figure out how to sustain the momentum and get successive scenes to top each previous one.
As well, the most successful performances involve characters whose ages are within range of these young actors. The realism of some of the older characters suffers from stock acting techniques and exaggeration.
Thorne’s decision to configure the black box Telus in a long rectangular thrust means that the action on Emily Dotson’s interesting-looking, skewed set is almost always a long way from some seats. Given the nature of the material and Isobel’s direct address to the audience, I’d have preferred a more intimate, in-yer-face staging.
Rachel Shaen’s lighting is effective and Yuyu Ogido’s sound design works very well except for a few overly obtrusive moments.
This a difficult play. It’s a credit to all the students involved that they could go to the very dark places Judith Thompson imagines and deliver the material so affectingly.
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