Stage Door Review 2023


Friday, June 9, 2023

by Colleen Wagner, directed by Jani Lauzon

Factory Theatre, Factory Theatre Mainspace, Toronto

June 8-24, 2023

Karmyne: “We need a new story”

On paper, Armadillos, Factory Theatre’s last show to open in its 2022/23 season has a lot of potential. Its author Colleen Wagner won the Governor General’s Award for Drama in English in 1995 for The Monument. Its director Jani Lauzon is widely celebrated as an actor, singer and director. Its cast is made up of award-winning actors and its designer has won six Dora Awards. What could go wrong?

What is wrong is Wagner’s play . It shows us the lives of actors and scenes of the play they are putting on, but it does not complete either story and does not show any relation between the onstage and offstage action. Wagner has not decided what tone the play has – serious, farcical or satiric – and this leaves the director and the cast completely in the dark about how to approach the text.

But there are more severe problems than these. Wagner’s play-within-a-play purports to portray the story from Greek mythology of Peleus and Thetis. Most frequent playgoers will know numerous stories from Greek mythology from Oedipus to Orpheus, but this is not one of them. The problem is that Wagner not only does not provide enough background to understand the story but she also intentionally misrepresents the story to suit her own ends.

As Wagner depicts it, Zeus, still flush from defeating the Titans (the older gods of the Greeks), is busy establishing his new regime. He has demoted his sister/wife Hera from goddess-ship to attendant and seeks favours from the young sea-nymph Thetis, the granddaughter of Gaia, the primordial Mother Earth from whom all life sprang. Gaia gave birth parthenogenically to Uranus, the sky, and the children of the two were Titans and their children the familiar Greek gods like Zeus and Hera.

As Wagner would have it, Zeus grills Thetis because he thinks she knows the whereabouts Gaia. Why Zeus should choose Thetis to quiz rather than any of Gaia’s other innumerable descendants is a mystery. In any case, either Thetis doesn’t know or won’t tell him, so Zeus attempts to lure her to his side with the promise of increasing her powers from to head Nereid (i.e., sea nymph). Zeus seeks Gaia because he wants to destroy her. He wants to replace her myth with his own myth that he, not she, created the world. Thus, Wagner in what the theatre calls an “unabashedly feminist” play shows how the male god Zeus wants to obliterate a matriarchal origin story.

Hera, however, feels that Thetis’s life is in danger. There is an ancient prophecy that Thetis will beget a son who would grow up to be greater than his father. To save Thetis she asks Peleus, then the most renowned mortal hero, to help Thetis escape to earth. Hera also wants Peleus to marry Thetis and if she refuses to take her by force.

Even in the context of the play, Wagner’s version of the story makes no sense. How exactly can Gaia, i.e., Mother Earth, “hide” from Zeus? How can Hera, goddess of marriage who punishes rapists, suggest that Peleus take Thetis by force? And why should he marry her? Marriage never stopped Zeus before when he lusted after a woman.

Wagner wants us to see how deleterious it is that a male-centred world has taken over a female-centred world order and wants us to denounce Zeus’s male creationist story that seeks to repress the original female creationist story.

In doing so, Wagner is following the theories of the great mythologist Robert Graves (1895-1995). He is best known as the author of I, Claudius (1934), but is also wrote his theory of Greek and Celtic mythology entitled The White Goddess (1948) in which he posits exactly what Wagner portrays, an originally female-centred Greek religion that was overthrown by a newer male-centred religion. The difficulty with promoting this view is that Graves’s theory has from the 1990s on been thoroughly debunked as pure, poetic fancy on Graves’s part.

What is especially disgraceful is that Wagner is deliberately deceitful. The play-within-a-play about Peleus and Thetis in no way represents the story as found in Greek texts. In the Iliad, Thetis is no helpless maiden as in Wagner and rescues three Greek deities including Zeus from danger. In ancient compendia of Greek mythology, it is Zeus, who chooses Peleus for Thetis. He does this because by marrying her to a mortal he knows that no child of hers could ever be greater than a god.

Far from escaping Mount Olympus, the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, a major subject for painters from the 16th through 18th centuries, was celebrated by all the Olympian gods, including Zeus, who give the couple fantastic presents. Thetis later gives the present from Zeus to honour her own son, Achilles. Thus, what Wagner has done is invent a false misogynist story meant to represent Greek mythology and then condemn it as misogynist. It’s an example, much seen in conservative politics lately, of “If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts”.

If Wagner has managed to make this misrepresentation of Greek myth interesting, we might not object. However, the play-within-a-play we see is incredibly boring. The dialogue is as clunky as in the old sword-and-sandals movies of the 1950s and ’60s and adding simulated sex onstage doesn’t make the play seem more modern.

The dialogue works best when Wagner leaves the stilted world of the gods behind and shows us the actors winding down after the play-within-a-play. The language and the actors’ delivery of it is more natural.

We learn that Jay who plays Zeus and Sofia who plays Hera have both been dumped by their partners after long-term relationships. Meanwhile, Dyrk, who plays the virtuous hero Peleus, is a promiscuous bisexual (Wagner doesn’t shy away from stereotypes) and Karmyne, who plays the virginal Thetis, drinks too much and looks for hookups on Tinder every night. Wagner’s big insight is – wait for it – that the actors’ lives don’t match the roles they play on stage.

Wagner does have Dyrk go out with Karmyne and they discuss whether playing a role in a play has any influence on life (it doesn’t). Frustratingly, Wagner never tells us if anything else happens between them. Wagner has Karmyne say that she is a last-minute replacement for the actor who was to play Thetis, but never develops this point.

The play concludes with a chaotic presentation of the scenes from the play-within-a-play that we’ve already seen. The humour, if that’s what Wagner is aiming for, is that Karmyne does not show up and the actors decide to go ahead with the performance anyway. This, of course, would never happen. Even if an actor does not show up, there is the stage manager or the director or a stagehand with a play text (all of which I’ve seen happen) who can fill in.

Wagner has two important points she wants to make. One is that we are influenced by the stories we tell. Two is that men take advantage of women who are drunk. The two must be of equal weight since Wagner has a character repeat these bits of wisdom at least five times each throughout the play.

The general impression the show makes is that the cast and production team have simply taken a deep breath and soldiered through with this dog’s breakfast of a play as best they could. None of the actors do much to distinguish their mythological characters from their everyday actorly characters except that in the play-within-the-play they all speak Wagner’s tedious dialogue woodenly, whereas they speak her dialogue as actorly characters more fluently.

Ryan Hollyman, who just recently played a reprehensible man in authority at the Tarragon, now plays another reprehensible man in authority only with less vitality. He plays both Jay and Zeus, and has a line as Jay in which he claims that he just says his lines and goes home. That’s just how Hollyman’s performance feels. He has the ignominy of having to simulate three orgasms in the space of two hours, but his general approach is “Let’s just get it over with” and move on.

Zorana Sadiq is all deadly earnestness as Hera but shows she does have a sense of humour as the actor Sofia, much more like her characters in last year's Wildfire. Sofia’s contemplation of herself as an ageing woman is the only small scrap of the dialogue that has any real resonance, and one wishes Wagner had forgotten all the rest of the play and focussed on that theme and Sofia’s character.

Mirabella Sundar Singh, recently impressive in Pamela Sinha’s New, is quite annoying as Thetis. She speaks all her lines in the same tone of voice no matter their meaning. She also has them all end abruptly as if she were imitating a robotic telephone message. Luckily, she brings some modulation to her voice as Karmyne, but Wagner has given Sundar Singh only a vague sketch of a part to work with from which Singh is unable to form a convincing character.

Paolo Santalucia, fresh from his terrific performance as Konstantin in Chekhov’s The Seagull, is given a cartoonish Greek hero to play as Peleus and a pernicious stereotype to play as Dyrk. Santalucia does his best to make the two parts interesting, but there’s nothing there. Sofia repeatedly mentions that Dyrk is dangerous, but Wagner never gives us any evidence why and neither does Santalucia.

Jawon Kang’s costumes for the play-within-a-play are variations of modern dress as if the production were a modern take on ancient myth. Zeus’s red sash is sewn across his black suit jacket. Peleus’ khaki jacket is collarless. Hera wears a cloth corset belt over a pants with heeled shoes. When the actors play actors they revert to informal jeans and trainers.

Trevor Schwellnus has designed the set and lighting. Zeus’s Olympian office is composed of three white parabolic arches with lots of shredded plastic in between to represent clouds, one supposes. Schwellnus’s lighting is actually the most attractive aspect of the play given that he uses a far greater range of effects that Wagner does with language. The one peculiarity is that whenever Thetis enters through the central arch, the arch turns red producing the unintended comic effect that Thetis has just beamed aboard the Starship Enterprise.

Too many Canadian plays in Toronto this season have given one the impression that no one at the theatre involved has bothered to read the play. Just because an author has previously won an award should not mean that author gets an automatic pass. Staging poorly written plays is no way to win audiences back to the theatre. Armadillos is a play to avoid. It is neither entertaining nor enlightening and its critique of Greek mythology is bogus since Wagner’s portrayal of it is her own invention. Stay home and read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (1942). It’s packed with ancient tales well told and you will find more enjoyment in it than you will in Wagner’s dreary play.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Ryan Hollyman as Zeus, Zorana Sadiq as Hera, Mirabella Sundar Singh as Thetis and Paolo Santalucia as Peleus; Ryan Hollyman as Zeus and Zorana Sadiq as Hera© 2023 Jeremy Mimnagh.

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