Stage Door Review

Wildfire

Friday, June 3, 2022

✭✭

by David Paquet, translated by Leanna Brodie, directed by Soheil Parsa

Factory Theatre, Toronto

June 2-19, 2022

Claudine: “Come to think of it, you’re exactly like my cookies”

Imagine a combination of Aeschylus, Samuel Beckett and Michel Tremblay and you will get a general ideal of the effect of David Paquet’s play Wildfire (Le Brasier). It has the structure of a generational tragedy, but it is also farcical and absurd and features six funny but sad Québécois eccentrics. Who knows why it took so long for this brilliant play from 2012 to make its Canadian English-language premiere, but we have to thank Factory Theatre for finally giving Torontonians the chance to see it. The current production directed by Soheil Parsa is so rigorously formal it makes Paquet’s play already feel like a classic.

I really hesitate to discuss too much about the structure of the play since discovering its structure was one of the main pleasures in seeing the play for the first time. Therefore, to review the play without spoiling viewers’ experience I will consciously withhold as much vital information as possible.

When the action begins we meet three characters – Claudette (Soo Garay), Claudine (Paul Dunn) and Claudia (Zorana Sadiq). We discover that they are triplets and live in separate units of the same triplex. They don’t communicate with each other in person but by phone, that the actors show symbolically by raising a palm to the audience. Paquet may have chosen these names because they each derive from the Latin clausus meaning “closed off” or “inaccessible”.

All three are unhappy. Claudette, who has a child, is disturbed when the first sentence the child says to her is “I want to push you in the fire”. Claudine has no friends except the cookies she bakes and to whom she talks though they do never respond. Paquet makes us aware of the theatrical metaphor when he has Claudine tell the audience, “Come to think of it, you’re exactly like my cookies”. Claudia reminds the other two should they show vague signs of happiness how horrible their mother was to them, her most common statement being that she should have used an IUD.

Paquet keeps the passage of time deliberately vague so that Claudette’s child seems to grow from a baby to a boy in the space of a few minutes. The main event that happens to Claudette is that her son Gabriel runs away from home. The main event that happens to Claudine is that she stops telling her therapist a completely fabricated life story and finally tells the truth, a test by fire, according to the therapist. The main event that happens to Claudia is her sending off the baby she had by the mailman in a box by registered mail. Once that happens Claudia feels free to leave her apartment and meet her two sisters.

After a blackout when the triplets disappear, we don’t know where the play is headed. We don’t even know this when we meet two new characters Callum (Paul Dunn) and Carol (Zorana Sadiq). Both of these characters are also unhappy. Callum’s brother has pointed out to Callum that he is a loser who spends all his time online and has no friends. Carol is still mourning the death of her cat Shortbread, the only thing she ever loved, who was run over by a garbage truck in front of her. How these two unfortunates come to meet and form a facsimile of a relationship is the funniest and most touching part of the play. How their story relates to the previous scene remains unknown until the scene’s end.

After another blackout we meet a third new character Caroline (Soo Garay). How her story relates to the previous two scenes remains unknown until the play’s end. Caroline tells us in an amazing monologue how she remained completely without a sex-drive until she happened to see the face of a man on television while she was vacuuming. She is horrified to discover when she turns off the vac that the face is that of a serial killer. Two other male faces on the same programme only intensify the fire growing within her. Caroline is both disgusted at herself but also overjoyed to find she actually does have a libido and that her libido needs satisfaction.

How these three stories fit together is a mystery I will not spoil, but I will say that they do fit together and in ways you cannot imagine until they are revealed. What Paquet gives us to work with are various coincidences and images. We can’t help but note that all six characters’ names begin with C. All six are essentially loners who feel that their very propensity of aloneness is poisonous. Claudette keeps her baby Gabriel in a cage, and Claudia sends off her baby in a box as soon as it’s born.

All six characters are connected by the imagery of fire, real or metaphorical (hence the play’s title). Claudia and Caroline experienced an intense fire within that Paquet explicitly links with lust. Claudine has both burned her cookies and undergone a “trial by fire”, while Callum’s favourite non-online game is “Dragons and Kings” which he plays with Carol.

Fire is always an ambiguous image. It both warms and destroys and Paquet explores this double-sidedness of fire imagery in his play. Paquet also demonstrates that all six of his characters are obsessed with death. It could be the suicide of Claudette’s husband, the poison Claudette’s husband gave to Claudine, the death of Carol’s cat and the lethal creature she replaces it with or Caroline’s perverse attraction to serial killers. Perhaps the most poetic moment in the play is when Callum, deserted by Carol, looks around him and sees nothing but little red lights indicating a place where a death occurred. Callum realizes he’s surrounded by death. And couldn’t we make the same observation about ourselves? 

The lives of Paquet’s characters may be comic in their extreme eccentricity, but loneliness, unhappiness and death are not comic in themselves. Paquet’s play makes us laugh at things that ultimately are not inherently funny and, like Beckett, makes us aware of that that is what we are doing. As Vladimir says in Waiting for Godot (1953), “The air is full of our cries. But habit is a great deadener”. Paquet makes us wonder how many tragedies we blind ourselves to when we label someone a loser.

Soheil Parsa has directed an immaculate production. There is no set. Instead, Kaitlin Hickey’s precise lighting serves to define the isolated squares the characters inhabit and then links these squares when characters manage to break out of their isolation. Hickey’s lighting also covers such extremes as the dark and dangerous alley Caroline goes down or the roaring blaze that is the greatest image of fire in the play.

Thomas Ryder Payne’s music has both a childlikeness and an eeriness perfect for the characters of the play. His sound effects are heightened but sometimes we feel it is not really necessary to illustrate every single sound that a character happens to mention.

Jackie Chau’s costumes shows the relatedness of the triplets through the similar colour schemes of their clothing. The clothing shapes are iterated in the second scene, but what Caroline wears in the third is a complete departure in colour and shape from what has come before.

All three actors give superb performances. While we initially view all six character simply as loony, the actors clearly differentiate all the characters they play from each other.

As Claudine, Paul Dunn is mild and mentally out of touch with the real world but yet has a subversive streak that causes Claudine to lie to her therapist. As Callum, Dunn is awkward of movement and speech where Claudine was graceful in both. As Claudia, Zorana Sadiq is the bitterest of the triplets but still shows a softer, more expansive side when recounting her growing lust for the mailman. Soo Garay plays Claudette as a woman who panics at the smallest provocation while being unaware of the larger issues that threaten her.

As Caroline, Garay delivers with controlled disquiet what may soon be regarded as one of the great monologues in Canadian drama. Garay makes Caroline’s discovery of sexual desire hilarious in itself but disturbing in terms of the horrible men who have awakened it. It is simply jaw-dropping how perfectly Garay balances Caroline’s discovery and pursuit of her desire on such a fine line between humour and horror. It is no wonder the audience wildly applauded Garay the first moment the monologue had a pause.

It is amazing how much Paquet has condensed into only 70 minutes. The play is so concisely written it would succeed even if its only aim were comedy. Paquet, however, has more in mind. He says in his Playwright’s Notes that he was inspired by the notion of generational curses that one finds in Greek tragedy, of which Aeschylus’ Oresteia (458BC) about the House of Atreus, as the only surviving Greek tragic trilogy, is the prime example. In Wildfire the curse that pursues each character is a combination of unhappiness, loneliness and death. Unlike Greek tragedy, this makes the curse in Wildfire not extraordinary but in fact common to everyone. We may laugh at how Paquet depicts his characters, but we really can’t laugh at the implications of their fate.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Soo Garay as Claudette, Paul Dunn as Claudine and Zorana Sadiq as Claudia; Zorana Sadiq as Carol and Paul Dunn as Callum; Soo Garay as Caroline. © 2022 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets visit www.factorytheatre.ca.