Unknown true story from Canadian history is rediscovered in new site-specific performance at Toronto heritage building
The beauty of Canadian Rajah is in the ambitious stakes that playwright Dave Carley sets for himself, which the cast and crew quite admirably exceed. Namely, they bring a little-known piece of Canadian history to life: a family drama, involving sex, racism, Borneo royalty, and political intrigue, with only two actors to step into the roles of this sprawling, decades-long story. The play is at the end of a run of intimate performances at the Campbell House Museum.
We meet Esca (Jon De Leon), the son of the second White Rajah of Sarawak-then an independent kingdom, now a state in Malaysia-waiting to speak to his father’s second wife, Ranee (Barbara Worthy). Shipped to Ontario as a boy to prevent his rise to the throne, Esca slowly retraces the steps of his past until finding the truth. De Leon is a confident storyteller, switching characters like one might try on pairs of glasses. He locks into Esca’s drive to reclaim his Sarawak past with a dynamic blend of dignity, selflessness, and longing for a taste of the power he deserves.
Ranee, a guarded and piercingly intelligent English woman, is a match for Esca’s noble rigor. Her self-assuredness is contagious, her refinement fabulously posh. Their final dialogue is why two-handers are so compelling; the actors pay attention to nothing but each other, reacting to every change in their features, adding notches to the already rising tension.
The original actor to play Ranee, Chick Reid, came down with pneumonia and had to withdraw from the production. Valiantly, Stratford Festival perennial Worthy began work on the role two days before open and saw the run through. Considering this, her work is nothing short of guardian angel status. She finds evident comfort with the role, launching into diatribes laced with hilarious put-downs and witticisms that would earn a tip of Oscar Wilde’s cap. Though, quite understandably, Worthy wasn’t completely off book, this was dealt with elegantly and therefore easy to forget.
It is impossible to speak of Canadian Rajah without spending some time on the setting. Staged in a space barely larger than a mid-sized apartment, the actors perform within arm’s reach. They measure up to making us feel like we are in the room with their characters because we literally are. Armed with Carley’s humor and perfectly measured storytelling, and director Sarah Phillips’ thoughtful blocking, the cast is primed for their close-up.
My guest, V.J., thought the reveal of Esca’s motivations would benefit from a longer build-up and more foreshadowing. I agree, and it’s the only abrupt shift that doesn’t feel touched by authorial intention. She also praised how smoothly and efficiently Carley and cast went about juggling almost ten times as many characters as there were performers on stage.
Canadian Rajah is both education and entertainment without skimping on either. It is an example of how history is a living thing, where stories fall in and out of public consciousness depending on who, and how many people, share them. Composed over a decade and a half with the blessing of Esca’s family, it is safe to say the play has a fair shot at sticking around.
- Canadian Rajah performs at the Campbell House Museum (160 Queen Street West) from January 30th to February 17th, 2019
- Tickets are $30 and can be purchased online
Photo of Jon De Leon and Barbara Worthy by Kelsi Dewhurst.