Soulpepper tackles classic Michel Tremblay play in Toronto
It’s Halloween, and Montreal drag queen Hosanna has just returned home from a party in near-tears, still dressed as Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra. Her biker boyfriend, aging stud Cuirette, is not far behind. What ensues during Soulpepper’s production of Hosanna, written by Michel Tremblay (and translated by John Van Burek and Bill Glassco), is a little over two hours of claustrophobic emotional drama that examines the boundaries between gender and sexual desire, aging anxieties, and—perhaps most importantly—the terror of facing who we truly are once unmasked.
As an intimate, two-person play, the story of Hosanna and Cuirette–or Claude and Raymond, played respectively by Damien Atkins and Jason Cadieux–really does live or die based on the strength of the two leads, both independently and as a pair. Thankfully, on this point Soulpepper’s production succeeds at all angles.
Atkins is particularly engrossing in the second half, where the play shifts to take on a confessional style, and he has to carry the entire show with long speeches layered in meaning, emotion, and artful rambling. He handles the heavy material with aplomb, his gaze always half a step ahead of what he’s saying, presenting Hosanna as a fluid tangle of conflicted emotion that never quite knows where to settle.
Jason Cadieux as Cuirette/Raymond, Hosanna’s long-term partner (referred to as her in-quotes husband), is rough and tender, crude and yet consistently likeable. It’s a sturdy performance that balances sleaze with vulnerability, and he serves as a real rock on the stage, his raw anger making an interesting contrast to Atkins’ layered insults and self-deprecation.
The strengths of Soulpepper’s production, for me, lies here, in Atkins’ and Cadieux’s careless chemistry. Together, they’re the definition of an old married couple: a spitting but devoted pair living in tight-knit squalor for far too long, making tension quick to boil over. There’s a sense of history that simmers constantly between them, present even when they erupt into arguments, and most painful when they realize they’ve hurt the other. It makes their petty jabs and rows feel weighty and believable.
That intimacy is reflected in the set, which is small and threadbare, cheap and cramped and altogether uninviting (by design). It’s a strange mix of clutter and bare space that feels a little more like a hotel at times than a lived-in apartment, though there are some nice details. The windows, for example, don’t stick, and have to be propped open. There aren’t a whole lot of bells and whistles to it, but this seems to be the aim: overall, the production is rather straightforward, relying on Tremblay’s words to colour the scene.
And therein lies a small problem, for me. As a play, Hosanna feels very much like a product of its time, of queer conversations that were revelatory in the early 1970s, but don’t always jive in a modern context.
Particularly, there’s the ultimate culmination of Hosanna’s journey, which seems to come when she finally sheds her makeup and accepts the ‘he’ beneath it all. The play’s insistence on the gay man beneath the woman’s paint rejects any potential for ambiguity or a non-binary identity. It’s all an illusion, it seems to say–but watching the play in 2016, when trans issues are mainstream news (even if we have a long way to go), it seems jarring and not as satisfying as perhaps it might have been in 1973 that the play ultimately feels ill at ease with such ambiguity.
In this way, the play, like Claude and Raymond, shows its age a little, and while I don’t know how the Soulpepper production might have changed the fundamental narrative of the play, it doesn’t altogether do much to challenge it either. Perhaps that’s an impossible task.
Regardless, Soulpepper’s production is a finely acted, fully engrossing production, one that showcases the talents of two strong leading actors. It’s a slow boil that leads to a satisfying peeling away of complex emotion, and what it does particularly well is to illuminate the fears and anxieties of an aging queer couple in a particular moment in time. It’s well worth your time as well.
- Hosanna plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (Distillery Historic District, 50 Tank House Lane) until October 15th.
- Ticket prices start at $32
- Youth aged 21-30 can take advantage of Soulpepper’s StagePlay service, which offers discounted tickets on select dates.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by phone (416.866.8666) or in-person at the Young Centre box office.
Photo of Damien Atkins & Jason Cadieux by Bronwen Sharp.