Piety collides with extravagance in Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary playing at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times
The trouble with seeing a show at Buddies in Bad Times is that the audience is often more interesting than the performances.
The woman with the frizzy grey hair, ranting about how her new girlfriend has been fucking her yoga instructor for years. (“I mean, Jesus Christ, I know dykes are meant to be incestuous, but SERIOUSLY?”) The bald man dishing about the atrocious denim jacket someone else is wearing. (“I thought we stopped wearing that shit in the ’90s.”) The confused-looking francophone woman, who exclaims–in an aside to her companion–“Mille tonnerre, y’a des tapettes partout!” (“Good lord, they’re all faggots!”)
There’s a quality of reunion in the place: of a community coming together. Rings to be kissed, clothing to be judged, old friends to greet, new friends to impress. The theatre–the putative purpose for the visit–is almost secondary by comparison.
But not tonight. Michel Tremblay’s Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary, freshly-resurrected after decades of obscurity, swallowed the room whole. Simultaneously warm, incisive and savage, his Manon embraces us, welcomes us, warms us, and invites us to confess our sins–our excesses, our assumptions, our identities –then leaves us as little more than vanquished children before the communion rail.
Manon (Irene Poole) is too Catholic for the Catholics; not even the nuns want her. She inhabits a world of signs, symbols and signals, feeling the presence of God in every breath she takes–and fully-aware that an all-loving God does not necessarily mean a nice one. Poole’s talent as an actor is on full display, gliding perfectly through Manon’s confusion, desperation, inadequacy and, most destructive of all, her piety. The portrait is flattering and shocking; child-like, yet knowing of the world and its dangers. This is a woman who neither blinks nor flinches, and Poole–fire in her eyes and strength in her spine–nails it.
Sandra (Richard McMillan) is a creature of the excesses, the ego, the externalizing that Manon can’t bear. An aging drag queen who still lives for a good fuck, Sandra refuses to have regrets, to make mistakes, to turn down pleasure–even if she knows she’ll live to regret it. And McMillan’s portrait–the voice of a chain-smoker, the languid movement, the hard eyes–is note-perfect. Clever, impish, dangerous and unflinching, Sandra’s determination easily matches Manon’s faith–and yet having lived, and having experienced, and having earned that chain-smoker’s voice, Sandra is far, far wiser.
The relationship between these two characters is what drives the story, so–for the sake of not ruining the plot–I’m afraid I must leave you in the dark here. But either of these characters alone, delivering their monologue, would be more than worth the price of admission. The two of them together–especially with the addition of a third character, omitted from the program entirely but unavoidable in the later moments–is as impressive as it is devastating, especially for those familiar with Quebec Catholicism and its attendant pieties, rituals, foibles and secrets.
Teresa Przybylski’s set is simple and naked: scarcely more than a rocking chair and a vanity, yet the only thing missing is the smoke rising from Sandra’s ashtray. The minimalist design suits the performance-oriented piece, and also allows designer Itai Erdal’s breathtaking lighting to breathe, with all the expansion and contraction this implies. Debashis Sinha’s soundscape, as naked as the set, sneaks up behind you: is that the subway rumbling beneath me, or is this underscoring the action? Are those sirens, or sound effects?
And the questions this sound design inspires–where does the theatre end and the real world begin?–are far, far more important to this story than I can express in this review.
Translator and director John Van Burek has done amazing work to produce this wonderful, wonderful piece of art; Poole and McMillan are exactly the actors he needed to pull it off; and Michel Tremblay’s script, a piece which weaves inside the audience and tears us apart with every word, more than deserves this treatment.
- Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary plays at Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander Street) through February 2nd, 2014.
- Ticket prices vary from $20 to $37; see website for details. PWYC tickets available for certain performances.
- Show runs nightly Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, with Sunday matinee at 2:30 PM.
- Tickets may be purchased online or in-person at the Buddies in Bad Times box office.
- Be advised that this show includes frank treatment of sexuality.
Photograph of Irene Poole and Richard McMillan provided by the company.