Stage Door Review

Alphonse

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

✭✭

written by Wadji Mouawad, translated by Shelley Tepperman, directed by Alon Nashman

Theaturtle & Shakespeare in Action, Memorial Park, 22 Little Ave.

August 20-23, 2020;

Dufferin Grove Park, 875 Dufferin St.

August 27-30, 2020

Alphonse: “People only believe what they can see and touch”

On passing through Toronto on August 30, I was lucky enough to catch the second last performance of Alphonse, a revival of the delightful 1994 play by Wadji Mouawad. The production by Theaturtle and Shakespeare in Action happens to have been the first live, in-person theatrical presentation in Toronto since measures against Covid-19 shut the theatres in March. For theatre-lovers, eyed glazed over by the frustrating experience of watching Zoom readings or broadcast plays, the in-person presentation of this early play (his second) by Mouawad would be reason enough to travel to see it. As it happens, Alphonse is one of Mouawad’s finest works, an uplifting, highly theatrical exploration of the power of the imagination.

Mouawad is best known for such epic dramas as Incendies (Scorched) of 2003, which follow multiple plot lines to a single conclusion. Though Alphonse, Mouawad’s second play, is a solo play, only 70 minutes long, intended for adults and children over nine, it already shows the basic structure of his later, larger works. There are three intertwined plots which, in a way typical for Mouawad, are all imagined in the form of quests.

The central plot is focussed on 14-year-old Alphonse, who has not returned home from school and is missing for several days. Alphonse’s quest is his attempt to return home, but why he has gone missing and why he fails to return are not revealed until the play’s final moments. Until then, Mouawad allows us to imagine the same kind of dire scenarios that his family does.

The second plot focusses on Victor, the policeman assigned to the case. His quest is to find Alphonse or at least find out what has happened to him and why. His search involves questioning a large number of Alphonse’s family, neighbours, friends and schoolmates. Victor is especially interested in pursuing a romantic angle to Alphonse’s disappearance which, as we discover, tells us more about Victor’s clichéd notions than it does about the truth.

The third plot which takes the story far beyond the level of a police procedural, focusses on Pierre-Paul-René. (Pierre for short) a boy who appears to Alphonse only at night. Together they go on on many exciting and dangerous adventures. In the most recent adventure, Pierre has been given the task of saving a whole kingdom. All the recipes for making cakes and other sweets have been stolen by the loathsome, gourmand ruler of another land and Pierre is given the quest of fetching them back.

At first we are led to believe that Pierre is simply Alphonse’s imaginary friend, but as the action progresses Mouawad opens up the possibilities that Pierre is Alphonse’s imaginary alter-ego or even Alphonse himself as he imagines himself to be.

The presence of Pierre leads to questions of the nature of identity, of fiction and reality and of the power of imagination that will intrigue adult audiences just as the details of the journeys of Alphonse, Victor and Pierre will engage younger audiences.

The play is a gift to an actor who has to play an amazing 27 different parts. Director Alon Nashman has been associated with the play since 1996 when Shelley Tepperman translated it into English. Nashman has performed the play around the globe receiving the highest accolades wherever he has travelled. For the revival of Alphonse, Nashman and newcomer Kaleb Alexander alternate as the sole actor. Much as I would have liked to see Nashman, it is vital to assessing the viability of a play to see if it succeeds as well in the hands of those new to it.

With Kaleb Alexander the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Alexander has a formidably physical performance style that will impress adults and did draw youngsters into the story. Alexander manages with ease the task of keeping the 27 characters distinct be they men or women, aged or young, human or supernatural. He has a wide, firm command of accents and uses the whole range of his voice from top to bottom to find just the right tone for each character.

Nashman has encouraged Alexander to follow his own example in including improvised remarks about the specific surrounding in performing the play. As it happened these moments were some the most delightful of the performance. Alexander hilariously integrated references to the noise of an overhead helicopter, the squeal of a child at the nearby wading pool and curious peeks of little kids passing behind him into his delivery. One of the loveliest moments, not likely ever to be repeated was when Alexander as Alphonse, meditating on the nature of imagination, caught a dandelion seedhead floating past him in his hand and released it at the perfect moment that beautifully seemed to illustrate how fleeting both childhood and memory can be. This kind of impromptu interaction of an actor with his environment is precisely makes live theatre inimitable.

Theaturtle and Shakespeare in Action staged Alphonse August 20-23 on a small bandstand at Memorial Park. For the staging August 20-23 at Dufferin Grove Park, the background was the Gaudíesque fantasy COB House that looks like a three-dimensional illustration from a children’s book. It is situated at the south end of Dufferin Grove Park near the wading pool and a children’s playground. Luckily, Alexander was miked sufficiently to carry over the ambient noise. The performance was labelled as BYOB (Bring Your Own Blanket), but there were chair for those who arrived early and a few cushions for people who came later. Surveyors flags marked where seats should be placed for physical distancing.

Kaleb Alexander’s performance of Alphonse is a thoroughly enchanting experience. The play itself is a wonderful combination of meditation, action and whimsy but the effortlessly achieved theatricality is a wonder to behold. The production itself is a reminder that there is no substitute for live theatre as a performance medium. One can only hope that Nashman and Alexander take Alphonse to other parks in Toronto and elsewhere to give this lovely play and the thrilling experience of live theatre even greater exposure.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Kaleb Alexander, © 2020 Theaturtle; Kaleb Alexander, © 2020 CityTV.