A couple find a body on the shore in Flesh and Other Fragments of Love playing at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre
Flesh and Other Fragments of Love, which opened at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, is truly compelling. This is the English-language premiere of Evelyne de la Chenelière’s play, which was inspired by Marie Cardinal’s novel Une vie pour deux, and translated by Linda Gaboriau.
This is also an important first for me: I have never before seen a production helmed by Tarragon’s Artistic Director, Richard Rose. Considering the fact that he is a staple of the Canadian theatre scene, it’s about time!
Pierre and Simone are vacationing on the Irish Coast when they discover the body of a drowned woman, Mary, washed up on shore. Based on scraps of local rumor, the couple invent Mary’s story. As they weave the tale of her life, their unique perspectives on her and what she means force them to deconstruct both their marriage and their own individuality. As if rising from the dead, she becomes part of the fabric of their own story.
We discover how Pierre and Simone rejected the notion of a “proper family” with its (in their view) oppressive fidelity and stale domestic routines, opting for an open relationship where freedom is the ultimate virtue. They can’t quite reconcile or even properly define their ideas of freedom and responsibility, and so their lifestyle, though passionate, is dissonant and distressing.
Mary, as imagined by Pierre and Simone, has a dream of becoming a doctor in New York City. Before she can actualize her dream, she falls in love with a local fisherman, gets pregnant and abandons her professional aspirations in the hopes of building a family. But, it is not to be; he leaves her and she eventually loses sight of any future plans and succumbs to the sea.
There is something painfully obvious about Mary’s plight, but it works well in the context of this particular drama because her story is really just conjecture. Pierre and Simone have invented something that speaks of their own failed dreams and disillusionment. They need her story to make sense of their own.
The aesthetic of the production is very, very elegant. The back of the stage is a loose and wrinkly cyclorama that, when lit from behind, gives the impression of a lonely shoreline. A patch of gravel sits centre stage. As Pierre and Simone interact with Mary, she gradually writhes her way up from the stones into their world. Sadly, having served her purpose for them, she eventually crumples back down to be claimed by the sea that brought her in.
Her costume is simple yet vivid; it suggests a waterlogged and limp form that has caught seaweed as it drifted along the coast. In her careful movements, Nicole Underhay somehow manages to harmonize contrasting qualities: she seems to be made of gossamer, and yet there is also a heaviness in her that suggests bloated, rotting flesh. Her physicality alone is impressive. And then there is her extraordinary voice: lilting and persuasive.
My companion for the night pointed out that Mary’s text is reminiscent of the Irish playwright John Millington Synge, who was known to write in a language that was poetic and unnatural, yet strangely honest. There is something alien about Mary’s speech. In contrast to Pierre and Simone, who sound cultured and sophisticated, bodily concerns figure prominently in Mary’s text. Her visceral presence disrupts Pierre and Simone’s carefully crafted world of the mind and leaves a stain upon their shared psyche.
As Pierre and Simone, Blair Williams and Maria del Mar are a fascinating pair. In side glances, to each other and the audience, they convey—in such a subtle and natural manner—the history of their shared life. These mature and intelligent people are very much in love, and it hasn’t been easy. Encoded in the smallest of gestures, is evidence of a challenging partnership. They are amused by each other, captivated, and frightened too.
This is a wonderful production. All elements are in alignment. The performances are measured and eloquent. The stagecraft is evocative without being flashy. If you enjoy watching intelligent and articulate people poetically airing their dirty laundry, this is where you ought to be.
- Flesh and Other Fragments of Love is playing at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace (30 Bridgman Avenue) until February 16.
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm with Sunday Matinees at 2:30pm (additional Saturday matinees at 2:30pm on Jan. 18, 25 and Feb. 1).
- Tickets prices range from $21 – $53, with a PWYC on Jan. 7 at 8pm, and $13 Rush Tickets at the door Fridays (on sale at 6pm) and Sundays (on sale at 1pm) starting Jan. 17
- For tickets at information, please call Patron Services at 416-531-1827 or visit www.tarragontheatre.com
Photos of Blair Williams, Maria del Mar, and Nicole Underhay (above) and Nicole Underhay (below) by Cylla von Tiedemann