The Stronger Variations is “dark Christmas magic” playing at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
Theatre Rusticle’s current production of The Stronger Variations is pure Christmas magic – if, like me, you like your magic to have a dark side and the potential to drive you mad. Given the range of interpretations of the play’s source text covered over the evening, there should be something to whet every audience member’s whistle.
The experimental play is a series of variations on August Strindberg’s 20 minute play The Stronger, in which two women – a wife and her husband’s mistress – meet in a chance encounter on Christmas Eve. The wife then expresses her complex feelings towards the mistress in a long monologue. In The Stronger Variations, each of the play’s five actresses alternatively plays the wife and the mistress one right after the other, running the gamut of nearly every possible interpretation of the scene. By the end of the play, I was left as mentally exhausted as the heaving, panting characters were physically — and every bit as satisfied.
It’s difficult to try to point out the best variations, since every single one is performed to utter perfection. That said, some appealed more to me than others – which I think is to be expected in a series of variations.
There are a set variations that I like to think of as “Alice’s Adventures in a Winter Wonderland” that stand out most strongly to me. In these, the wife character seems to be lost in the woods and the mistress character is like a witch or a trickster set on terrifying and frustrating her. In one of them, the mistress echoes the wife’s words back at her like a supernatural being that left me with my mouth agape in spine-tingling wonder. In another, the wife makes an offering of her Christmas presents to the mistress who is a Goddess. I found all of them to be enchanting and wonderful in the purest sense of those words.
The play isn’t short on the comedic or the dramatic either. The two scenes that have the most original dialogue, one in which the mistresses describe their first kisses with the husbands and the other in which the wives describe how they’d like to exact their revenge on the mistresses, earned the biggest laughs from the audience. They felt off-the-cuff and improvisational as each actress tried to one-up the story of the actress before her telling increasingly absurd stories about “making out like teenagers” and suggesting that she might “stab her in the knee with her high heel.”
Each actress got her chance to be authentically vulnerable too. More than one interpretation of the wife’s monologue felt like an emotional breakdown and more than one interpretation end with the actress (and some audience members) shedding real tears. Perhaps the most effective dramatic scene was the one in which one a distressed and panicked wife character pleads with the rest of the actresses who are dancing about like robots to stop the constant repetition of the same sad story.
The play also offers strong, emotionally resonant movement variations that range from interpretive dance, to ballet, to jazz, to folk dance. All of these different elements add up to a comprehensive presentation of nearly every possible reading of Strindberg’s play and I found the result fascinating.
As much as I found the play to be a delight for the mind, I also found it to be a delight for the senses. The set, lighting, sound, prop, and costume designs are all deceptively simple and, like their textual counterparts, the sum total of their parts add up to create something nearly perfect. Visually, the show is a nostalgic 1950s Christmas scene. The blue-white trees covered in tinsel and snowflakes would not feel out of place in any of the claymation Christmas classics and the black and white dresses on the actresses (and their Barbies) have are classically elegant and sleekly sophisticated.
If you’re looking to see a show this Christmas season that isn’t just a boring rehash of classic Christmas stories, look no further than Theatre Rusticle’s The Stronger Variations. I found their dismantling of a simple, stereotypical relationship between two women utterly brilliant and endlessly fascinating. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
- The Stronger Variations is playing at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street) until December 7.
- Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 8PM, with a 2:30PM matinee on Sundays.
- Ticket prices run from $32-$37, with a $27-$31 under 30/arts worker price, PWYC on Sundays, and $20 rush tickets on Nov. 28-29 and Dec. 2-4 beginning at noon on the day of the show. Tickets are available online, by phone at 416-975-8555, or at the Buddies in Bad Times box office (12 Alexander Street) on Tuesdays-Saturdays from 12-5.