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vancouverplays review


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— John Cassini and Lori Triolo. Photo credit Emily Cooper

by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Haberdashery Theatre Company
Firehall Arts Centre
Jan. 16-30
$16-$33 or 604-689-0926

Friday night at the Firehall. I turned onto East Cordova and saw what I thought was a busker playing bucket drums on the front steps. His intricate beats matched my inner rhythm of anticipation as I prepared to watch Haberdashery Theatre’s controversial production of The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis.

I walked into to a lobby packed with patrons. The tight space, the art on the walls, and the waves of bucket drumming rolling in and out as more guests shuffled through the door all seemed to be guiding us on our journey from Vancouver’s Downtown East Side to the barrios of New York City.

As I entered the theatre, the striking view confirmed I had reached my destination. Lauchlin Johnston’s elaborate set hinted at the kinds of New Yorkers we were about to meet: red stilettos tossed on the bedroom floor, a plethora of house plants, a black hat placed conspicuously downstage center. Vibrant graffiti framed the playing space beautifully and gave a sense of bringing the outside in and the inside out. This sense was reiterated when Eric Banerd, the bucket busker, left his post outside and took his place on the stage to keep our hearts beating between scenes. The blend of in and outdoors underlined director Brian Markinson’s intention to link the characters of the play to the real people living similar struggles just outside the theatre walls.

To say the acting was anything less than excellent would be untrue. John Cassini justifies even the most nasty betrayals as Ralph D the AA sponsor, Lori Triolo reaches exquisite levels of desperation as his wife Victoria, and both Stephen Lobo and Kyra Zagorsky give themselves over completely to the painful truths experienced by Latin lovers Jackie and Veronica. However, as a Latina, watching non-Latino/a actors play Latino/a roles was challenging. Why? Aside from issues of representation that were discussed extensively in the recent town hall, what stood out to me was an apparent disconnect between Guirgis’ words and their meaning to the performers.

In the first scene, Jackie repeatedly calls Veronica his “Beautiful Boriqua Taino Mamacita Love Me Long Time Princess Fuckin’ Beauty Queen”. This title, to a non-Spanish speaker, can be dismissed as a comedic and lengthy display of affection. However, two of these loaded words (Boriqua, Taino) indicate a very specific cultural experience, the significance of which did not come through in Lobo’s delivery. Similarly, Zagorsky, who attacked all the English expletives with a gratifying violence, seemed to back off her Spanish lines, which is not what we’d expect from a character bursting with bravado like Veronica, much less when she is meant to be speaking her mother tongue.  The weight of the Spanish words does not land because the actors, regardless of their talent, lack the cultural experience needed to access their meaning in its entirety.

Francisco Trujillo’s portrayal of Cousin Julio was the exception. As the only Latino in the cast, he moves effortlessly from English to Spanish and back, displaying an ownership of both languages that is missing in the other Latino/a characters. Paradoxically, Trujillo’s Latino-ness also puts him in danger of going too far into the realm of stereotype. This has less to do with his performance, and more with the absence of other Latino/a characters to create a balance. Because Lobo and Zagorsky do not, as per Guirgis’ request, try to “be” Puerto Rican, the audience only gets to try one flavour of empanada.

I left the barrios of NYC and went back into the DTES, where a First Nations woman was waiting outside asking for food. I watched as one by one, the same people who had just seen a play about addiction, who had read Markinson’s notes in their program, walked right by, ignoring her. It became evident to me that what we had just experienced was a piece of theatre about New York, and this was real life in Vancouver. As theatre artists and audiences it is our job to bridge the gap between representation and reality.  Haberdashery’s production and the resulting discussions on diversity have demonstrated that, although we may have different opinions, we all have an idea of where to begin. I look forward to seeing more theatre in this city that reflects the realities of those who inhabit it.

Manuela Sosa


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