Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Push 2012 Review #10: No. 2 at The Cultch

No. 2, which the PuSh Festival is co-presenting with the Cultch through this Saturday, is a virtuosic performance in search of a more tonally coherent and satisfyingly constructed play. In this solo work by Toa Fraser (who subsequently directed a multi-character film adaptation), the amazing Madeleine Sami plays all nine roles, starting with Nanna Maria, the matriarch of a large Fijian family living in New Zealand who decides one morning that she will name her successor, and calls upon her grandchildren to help prepare a feast (the second generation being "worthless"). Enlisting a range of sharply delineated voices, physical gestures, and postures, Sami then introduces us in turn to: the dependable Erasmus, charged with finding a pig to roast; granddaughters Charlene and Hibiscus, enlisted to prepare the accompanying curries; the feckless Soul, who only seems to be good for stirring up trouble; rugby-playing Tyson, who seems to be Nanna Maria's favourite, and who brings with him his English girlfriend, also named Maria; and the young Moses, whom Sami brings to hilarious life in all his childish excitability. The ninth character is Father Francis, the local priest whom Nanna Maria invites to make the event more authentically Sicilian, in honour of her dead husband, who fought in Italy during the war, and with whom she is still in the habit of communicating.

Alone on stage, save for the chair from which Nanna Maria issues her directives, Sami is able to switch back and forth between characters with expert precision, telegraphing each grandchild's relationship with the battleaxe--and with each other--via a tone of weary resignation (Erasmus) or aggrieved martyrdom (Hibiscus and Charlene) or uncertain worry (Tyson) or innocent obliviousness (Moses and, in his way, Soul). Dramaturgically, however, I feel that Nanna Maria's own motives in naming her successor, and her somewhat fickle and random manipulations of her grandchildren, are left unexplained, or else are not provided enough internal context (or conflict).

SPOILER ALERT! Early on, it appears that Tyson will be the anointed one, even though, as per Fijian matriarchal custom, it would make more sense to name either Charlene or Hibiscus. This would seem to be confirmed especially after Nanna Maria starts warming to Tyson's girlfriend, with whom she gets drunk on grog and gin while the others do all the work, and whom she starts calling her adopted daughter. But by the time the feast is prepared, she seems to be taking direction from little Moses and when, in a surprise move, she ends up picking the person who appears the least responsible, Soul, we do have to wonder if she hasn't been having everybody on. Perhaps she sees in Soul, whose dance music mix and consequent flirtation with Tyson's Maria gets the party going in a way (i.e., with fighting) that appeals to Nanna Maria, a fun-loving kindred spirit, someone who reminds her of her departed husband. A final tableau of Nanna Maria dancing with what we assume to be the ghost of said husband partly supports such a reading. But the play ends so abruptly after the announcement of Soul's elevation, and Charlene's purse-lipped command for everyone to eat, that the invitation to find more depth in Nanna Maria's thinking is denied.

All of which is not to say that the evening did not contain an abundance of other pleasures--nine of them, to be precise. Indeed, for the skill and sheer exuberance (even still, after 10 years playing the roles!) with which Sami sketches each of the characters in this work, No. 2 is not to be missed.


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