Stage Door Review
The Rage of Narcissus
Tuesday, May 23, 2023
by Sergio Blanco, translated by David Goldman, adapted and directed by Marcio Beauclair
Expandido Theatre Group, Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, Toronto
May 19-28, 2023
“Je est un autre” (Arthur Rimbaud in letter to Georges Izambard, May 13, 1871
Outside of Aluna Theatre and its Rutas Americanas festival, there are few chances in Toronto to see plays from Latin America. Luckily, Expandido Theatre Group has come along and its stunning debut production in Toronto of The Rage of Narcissus (La ira de Narciso) from 2019 by Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco, now a citizen of France. The play is an examination of the nature of writing and the idea of the self presented in the guise of a thriller. It is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking.
Blanco is known for his creations of “autofictions”, stories based on events in his own life where he is the main character. Sole actor Matthew Romantini, begins the show by saying, I’d like to make something clear: The Rage of Narcissus is not a monologue. It’s a narrative. A storytelling. A tale that mixes reality and fiction. An autofiction.... To be OR not to be becomes to be AND not to be”. We don’t realize it at the time, but this introduction, which we may not even think is part of the play, tells us all we need to know to understand what happens. Those who have studied autofictions says the key difference between an autofiction and the more familiar autobiographical play is that in an autofiction the main character must be conceived of as the author himself.
So it is with The Rage of Narcissus. Romantini informs us that he will be playing Sergio Blanco in the drama and, in fact, was chosen by Blanco himself to play the part. The first production of Narcissus in Montevideo in 2019 concerned the visit of Blanco to a philological conference about “The Myth and the Gaze” in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Blanco the playwright encourages directors of his work to relocate the action of his plays to the cities where they live and to include local references. This is what translator and adaptor Marcio Beauclair has done and has shifted the location of the conference to Toronto, included references to the ROM, Philosopher’s Walk and the Bar Mercure at Bloor and St. George along with social and political issues currently on Canadians’ minds.
Sergio tells us about settling into Room 228, the very room (i.e., Renato Baldin’s set) that he is in. The first thing he does is to look on Grindr to see if there are any men nearby who want to have sex. There is. His name is Greg (Igor in the Ljubljana version) and he comes right over to Sergio’s hotel room.
After Greg leaves, Sergio notices stains on the carpet. Their rusty colour makes him think they are blood stains. When he moves the bed he discovers a massive stain underneath.
From this point on, the narrative (or “fable” as it is called elsewhere) vacillates among three topics. One is Sergio’s investigation of the stains in his room. Another is his continuing sexual encounters with Greg. The third is his rehearsal of the lecture he will give at the symposium about the myth of Narcissus as a metaphor for the writer.
To begin with the third, there could hardly be a figure in Greek mythology more symbolic of self-reflexivity than Narcissus. The story is best known from Book 3 of the Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8AD), a collection of tales in verse about transformations. The story was dramatized in Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s Metamorphoses 2023 earlier this year.
In the myth, Narcissus is doomed to unrequited love. He happens to see his reflection in a pond, falls in love with the boy he thinks is looking up at him. When he realizes that he is eternally separated from the boy he loves, he dies and is transformed into the flower that bears his name.
Sergio’s theory is that Narcissus’ gaze is like that of the writer who looks at himself and creates something else that is like him but separate from him. The gaze creates the fiction that there is another person. We see that this echoes what we had heard earlier about autofiction – that is about “to be AND not to be”.
Sergio reinforces this idea by quoting a famous remark by the poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91): “Je est un autre”. The incorrect third person singular verb intentional. A simplistic deciphering of this phrase might be that our concept of who we are is not the same as who we really are, the real self being unknowable. This is related to such facts that the word “person” derives from the Latin word “persona” meaning “mask”. Director Marcio Beauclair sees Rimbaud’s idea as so central to the play that he has designer Renato Baldin include it in neon and in English (“I is an other”) on the back wall of the set surrounded by array of different mirrors.
The second theme intertwined with this is Sergio’s encounters with Greg. As we soon see, Sergio compartmentalizes his various selves. He uses Grindr to locate Greg and once their finished, he’s finished with Greg. Greg, however, is not finished with Sergio and Sergio’s attempt to focus solely on his intellectual self who will be delivering a lecture is increasing disrupted by Greg’s attempts to force Sergio back into the only self Greg knows, Sergio’s sexual self.
Connected to the two previous themes is Sergio’s investigation of the stains in his room. Symbolically, the more interested in the stains that Sergio becomes, the more stains he sees. Just as Greg’s obsession with Sergio threatens to derail Sergio’s focus on his lecture so does Sergio’s amateur detective’s obsession with the stains. Blanco masterfully weaves all three of these themes of obsession – Narcissus with his reflection, Greg with Sergio and Sergio with the stains – into a powerful and disturbing conclusion.
Two more sub-themes feed into the flow of the three main themes. One is Sergio’s two futile attempts to have a meaningful conversation with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother via Skype. The other is Sergio’s two mystical encounters with the skeleton of a woolly mammoth at the ROM. The terrible irony is that Sergio has a more meaningful encounter with the skeleton than he does with his living mother. Alzheimer’s is causing his mother to lose her self, while the skeleton is nothing but itself and helps take Sergio out of himself to link him to something greater and more ancient.
Matthew Romantini subtly distinguishes how he plays himself, Matthew Romantini, from Sergio Blanco by giving Sergio a slightly lower speaking voice. He plays both as calm, genial and non-aggressive. This means that as Sergio gets closer to the horrific truth about the stains and as he becomes more disturbed with Greg’s stalking, the greater the distance is between the soothing tone of Romantini’s voice and the subject matter he is describing. Strangely, this difference between tone and subject matter only increases the tension.
We also notice that Romantini uses two other tones of voice that fit in with the play’s notion of a person having multiple selves, or we might say wearing multiple masks. In Sergio’s Skype calls with his mother, Romantini adopts the voice of a little boy as if, as a son, he was never an adult. When Sergio practices his lecture, Romantini adopts a strong, resonant voice of authority since, indeed, he is in command of what he is saying.
Blanco has skilfully packed more ideas on the subject of self in the 90 minutes of this play than most playwrights do in half again the time. And there is a rigorousness in his thinking that goes far deeper than in other plays on a similar theme such as Adam Rapp’s recently staged The Sound Inside from 2018. Blanco is frequently performed in Latin America and in Europe and I am glad that a company has finally presented his work in such a solid production in Canada. Let’s see more of his plays. As for the Expandido Theatre Group, this is the queer Latino company’s first production and it makes me look forward to whatever work it decides to bring us next.
Photos: Matthew Romantini as Sergio Blanco. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.
For tickets visit ca.patronbase.com.