Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: (Toronto) Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary

(photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
Icons, idols and disillusionment permeate the space at Buddies.
by Christian Baines

Intertwining sexuality with religion is a well-worn concept, but Michel Tremblay forges a particularly thought-provoking and perhaps even literal connection between their acolytes. The pious Manon has spent her adult life in servitude to Catholicism, her beloved rosary and every virtue she holds dear. Transvestite Sandra wants to fuck, embracing his gracefully un-aging cock, the one organ he can rely on in the face of an increasingly cruel mirror.

To reveal much more about the two would spoil many of the play’s pleasures, but in their respective idolatries, Manon and Sandra forge a unique – if slightly creepy – connection as each comes to realize the object of their worship is not so reliable after all, and maybe they can live with that.

Director and translator John Van Burek brings a subtle but firm hand to Tremblay’s 1977 play – essentially a series of monologues, alternated between the two leads. The themes are dense and at times nebulous. Van Burek’s minimalist direction combines well with the designs of Teresa Przybylski and Itai Erdal to bring out many of the darker shades within Manon and Sandra’s tales. From crises of faith to fear of STD’s, the evening’s topics run all over the map before reconnecting in the two characters’ childhoods in Montreal. This connection I would have thought fairly obvious by the 50 minute mark, but a few audible gasps on opening night suggest this may not be the case for all audience members.

Irene Poole seems a little young next to Richard McMillan’s Sandra, given the characters are supposedly the same age, but this is a minor quibble, easy to get past as Poole inhabits Manon as a thoroughly believable religious zealot, never letting her descend into parody. McMillan meanwhile, skirts perilously close to clichéd faux-femininity in his opening scenes, but quickly gets the character under control as he starts sharing the darker preoccupations of Sandra’s heart.

Perhaps any shortcomings in the material can be attributed to the play’s age. Such devout depictions of religion may feel a touch quaint against a modern-day, liberal and secularized Quebec. Manon, my dear, this cultural battle is over, and the demons of green lipstick and nail polish have won. Of course with that said, the play relies so heavily on symbolism – including powerful religious symbols and icons – that it can’t help but raise a few timely questions about certain debates currently engulfing the province. 

Manon, Sandra and The Virgin Mary won’t be a night at the theatre for everyone and it certainly isn’t as much fun as promotional images of a ghoulish looking McMillan would suggest. But it does stir up enough engaging food for thought within its own conceits. 

Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary runs Jan.11 - Feb. 2  

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