Theatre review: Past Perfect

Meet a Quebécois Maggie The Cat

We have been transported to the Great Depression and to a major North American city just beginning a long slide into relative economic decline. Three members of a family living in genteel poverty anxiously await the arrival of a gentleman caller. Each copes as best he or she can with the distinct lack of a strong patriarchal presence. The mother insists on her stubbornly naive belief that she deserves respect for keeping up appearances under such trying circumstances; the homosexual son dreams of a life making art rather than subsistence; and the plain young daughter hopes to make an escape into the arms of her suitor. The play’s events will turn on the arrival of the handsome but awkward young gentleman and his decision about courtship.

We seem to be in familiar territory watching Past Perfect, currently on stage at the Tarragon Theatre. But this city is Michel Tremblay’s Montreal, not Tennessee Williams’ St Louis, and the centre of this family dynamic is an elder daughter actively plotting to destroy her sister’s main chance of happiness.

Yes, a Québécois equivalent of Maggie The Cat is trying her destructive best to smash this particular Glass Menagerie. Playwright Tremblay has created yet another appearance of his defining character, Albertine, this time in an attempt to explain her peculiar genesis during the poverty-stricken years of 1930s Montreal.

Appearing often in Tremblay’s work, Albertine has enthralled audiences for decades. However, there is trouble this time. Whether it is the fault of Tremblay’s original vision or of Linda Gaboriau’s anachronistic translation (the characters sound more like today’s Montrealers than those from 70 years ago) or of director Leah Cherniak’s production, this incarnation of Albertine seems more tiresome than iconic.

Cherniak tries to place Albertine and her family’s story firmly in the orbit of the great Hollywood melodramas that dominated ordinary peoples’ imaginations during the period of the play’s events. One major element of this production is a series of background video designs by Cylla von Tiedemann that displays some of that decade’s most luminous screen goddesses. Unfortunately for Caroline Cave, who plays Albertine, this deliberate referencing of the visual power of great actresses has the contrary effect of reducing the impact of her own deliberately overwrought performance.

Other parts of the production design reflect this decision to ape the rules of classic Hollywood studio melodrama. Yannick Larivee has designed improbably perfect costumes for characters who continually remind us that they live in the middle of a depression, and are generally out of work, living hand to mouth in a rented apartment.

In the great films of the ’30s, such stylish costumes defied social and economic reality to fill the escapist needs of a desperate mass audience. On this stage, they are a representative false step in this wayward production. Tremblay’s play doesn’t match the heightened melodramatic style in which it is presented.


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