Stage Door Review 2022
Tuesday, March 8, 2022
by Rosa Laborde, directed by Jackie Maxwell
Tarragon Theatre, Tarragon Mainspace, Toronto
March 8-13, 2022 in person
March 15-27, 2022 online
Michael Sontag: “It’s okay not to be okay”
Rosa Laborde, known for such tense, sombre plays as Léo (2006), Hush (2010), and True (2014), takes a turn towards comedy in her latest play Light, now in having its world premiere run at the Tarragon Theatre. The play is very strange and shifts its focus more than once. On the one hand, Laborde uses these shifts to keep information hidden until she wants to reveal it. On the other hand, these shifts deliberately obscure the improbability of the play’s underlying story.
The action is set in a religious retreat established in the Rockies by a man named Michael Sontag (Hardee T. Lineham), who awoke one morning feeling the bliss of complete enlightenment in the Buddhist sense of kenshō (見性) or seeing the true nature of things. In the play this is interpreted as seeing that what we think of as reality and the self are illusions.
The retreat is currently run by the husband-and-wife team of Theo (Maurice Dean Wint) and Mukti (Linda Kash). We first meet Theo and Mukti as they lead the members of the ashram in silent meditation. (We hear their thoughts, mostly their separate voices saying “thinking”, in the soundscape.) These members include Jesse (Philip Riccio), the group’s gardener; Angie (Christine Horne), who is heavily pregnant; Beni (Shakura Dickson), the daughter of Theo and Mukti who was born at the ashram; and Willow (Sara Farb), a new arrival.
Into this peaceful circle noisily stumbles Spanish-speaking Valentina (Maria del Mar), a would-be new member just come from Argentina, whose loud voice and loud apparel could not contrast more visually and aurally with the quiet and the restrained earth tones of the meditative circle. Valentina is the focus of the first several scenes and Laborde seems to encourage the notion that the action will concern itself with whether such a demonstrative, worldly woman will ever be able to fit in a little society that values restraint and asceticism.
As it turns out, this is a bait-and-switch tactic. Laborde uses the comedy surrounding Valentina to introduce us to the characters and practices of the ashram, but once Valentina makes friends with Willow, the actions switches its focus to Willow. Why would Laborde use such an odd technique in Light? The answer is that Willow’s presence at the retreat is highly problematic. Questions from and about Willow would have arisen with her arrival, so Laborde portrays Willow as already in place so that these questions can arise later in the action.
Without giving away too much of the plot, Willow discovers (or has discovered) that she knows one of the denizens of the retreat. Whether she arrives there for the reason she tells others (to get over the habit of being attracted to the wrong men) or whether she has arrived there in order to meet this person from her past, or whether she, a journalist, arrives there for the purpose of writing an exposé on the retreat is not clear. Initially, Laborde would have us believe the first explanation, but, on reflection, that explanation does not exclude the second or third.
Why Willow should find herself at the same place as a person she knows but has not communicated with for 20 years is highly improbable since the worlds of the two are so different, and Laborde’s description of their shared past makes it less rather than more probable.
The New Age philosophy behind the teachings at the ashram are a mélange of ideas from Sufism, Hatha yoga, Vedanta and Zen. One of the recurring topics that arise in the speeches of Theo, Mukti or Michael is the failure of human beings to see beyond what they immediately perceive. You may call a being on a tree a bird but that is merely giving it a label. What is it really? In looking at ourselves, too often live out a story others have constructed about us rather than discover what our real story is.
Along these lines, Laborde makes the daring decision about three-fourths through the action to have Theo break out of his character and to break the fourth wall by addressing the audience directly. In the unhappy tradition of Canadian dramatists feeling they need to tell us explicitly the meaning of a play, Laborde has Maurice Dean Wint call for the stage manager to put the house lights up as he delivers a lecture about theatre.
He informs us that he and the other actor are not their characters but are merely playing roles written for them by a writer. After this Wint slips back into his role and the play continues. The point of this disruption is the most ham-handed attempt to force the audience to see a play as a play I have ever seen. Laborde may think the audience needs a direct example of levels of perception and taking charge of one’s own story, but that has already been implicit in the text. Laborde had previously had Michael quote the start of Jacques’ speech in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage”, certainly the best-known example of the theatrum mundi trope in English literature.
In another odd structure choice, Laborde gives us two endings set six months after the events of the main action. In the first, Willow is visited by Angie. In the second, she is visited by Mukti and Beni. The first visit is absolutely necessary; the second is superfluous. Without Angie’s visit Laborde would have left us with the most negative possible view of the retreat and the people who live there. Angie’s visit, though very short, reverses that view and helps to restore a much-needed sense of ambiguity to the play that Laborde nearly allows it to lose.
With the exception of Theo’s fourth-wall-breaking speech, the play is exceptionally well directed. Jackie Maxwell’s forte, as seen in countless productions when she was Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, is the moulding of ensemble acting. Here she does the same so that the diverse individuals who make up the retreat really do feel like an on-stage community. One pleasure is to see how Valentina, initially such an outsider, gradually adopts the ways and aesthetics of the group. Indeed, Maxwell realizes that Valentina’s trajectory is parallel but opposite to that of Willow, who becomes more alienated from the group the more she learns about them.
Sara Farb is outstanding in the role of Willow, managing to smooth out in performance all the irregularity of the character in the text. Looking at the action closely, Willow plays her part as a young woman seeking healing through a withdrawal from the world so well that it comes as a surprise when she starts to feel so alienated from the retreat. Yet, such is the force of Farb’s performance that we side with her in her anger. Farb is especially fine at the conclusion where Willow says virtually nothing, but communicates more remorse through her posture and facial expression that words could express.
As Mukti, Linda Kash is a delight. She is very much like the Mother Superior of a convent who is gentle in her rebukes because she knows how hard the discipline is. Kash presents a rare example of an actor who is able to generate humour from her character’s kindness.
As Mukti’s husband Theo, Maurice Dean Wint is a solid and genial presence. Willow at one point deplores the eclecticism of the ashram’s philosophy, but when Wint in his low calm voice relates a philosophical anecdote or an axiom for behaviour, he gives it the ring of profundity no matter what its source. At no point to we doubt the sincerity of conviction of Wint’s character. Wint portrays Theo as the embodiment of a wisdom that the others never even hope to attain.
Jesse seems to be a character Laborde has included only to provide a source of non-ascetic temptation for Willow. Yet, Philip Riccio makes his presence essential to understanding the ashram’s community. If a vital young man like Jesse, who had a high profile role in the outside world, can find a peace here that he could not find elsewhere, the retreat, no what its foundations, must be doing something good.
As the soon-to-be mother Angie, Christine Horne plays a character quite unlike the brittle, intellectual characters she has previously, played (e.g. her Hamlet in 2017). Horne surprises us with her ability to play a slightly dim, overwhelmingly warm young woman who willingly gives in to the rush of hormones that influence her speech and emotions. Horne exudes an ecstasy of feeling that no outside reality can alter. Horne gives Angie's body language such detail that you well think Horne herself is pregnant.
Hardee T. Lineham is also atypically cast. His Michael is no grump or menace but a spirit of the past that still haunts in human form the ashram he founded. Lineham makes Michael part crazy old old man and part inspired prophet whose speech combines nonsense and wisdom, happily leaving the listener to sort the two out.
Shakura Dickson is given little to say or do as Beni, the child of Theo and Mukti, but whatever she does say or do is crucial to view of the action. Willow tends to treat the younger woman as naive, but over and over Dickson shows that Beni sees through Willow’s questions even before Willow finishes speaking them and handily refutes Willow’s negative assumptions about the ashram and its members with a calm firmness Willow can never muster.
Maria del Mar is very funny as Valentina, the ditsy Argentine who we are certain will never fit in. We think she is too self-centred and too flamboyant for such an environment based on selflessness and restraint. Yet, after disappearing for much of the play when the action shifts to Willow, del Mar reveals a surprisingly serious side to Valentina that we never knew existed. Valentina’s transformation serves as a rebuke to Willow, who at some point refuses to be touched by the benefits the ashram has to offer.
Laborde’s play offers a valuable corrective to this divisive time of stultifying judgementalism we live in where people insist on the unshakable rightness of their beliefs and refuse to countenance the expression of any contrary thoughts. It is a time when placing ideas in a global or universal perspective is considered a sign of weakness. Laborde’s Light really is the kind of play we need now, and it it a great pity that its structural peculiarities prevent it from having the full impact it could.
Photo: Linda Kash, Sara Farb, Christine Horne, Maurice Dean Wint, Shakura Dickson, Philip Riccio, Hardee T. Lineham and Maria Del Mar; Maria Del Mar, Maurice Dean Wint and Sara Farb; Maurice Dean Wint and Linda Kash; Sara Farb; Christine Horne. © 2022 Cylla von Tiedemann.
For tickets visit www.tarragontheatre.com.