It felt fitting to be in the audience on election night in the United States watching Touchstone Theatre’s beautifully acted production of Anton Piatigorsky’s Eternal Hydra. The first play in Touchstone’s 2012-13 season, and compellingly and insightfully directed by Touchstone AD Katrina Dun, the work first began life as a one-act play commissioned by the Stratford Festival in 2002. Toronto-based Crow’s Theatre, under the able leadership of Chris Abraham (who worked closely with Piatigorsky in developing the play), premiered a three-act version in the spring of 2009, which went on to win several Dora Awards (including for best play), before traveling to the Magnetic North Theatre Festival in Ottawa. The play’s West Coast premiere runs through this Sunday at Studio 16 on West 7th at Granville.
An intellectually ambitious and self-consciously literary work of drama, Eternal Hydra is a theatrical detective story that focuses on three central couples in three different time periods (contemporary New York City, Paris between the two world wars, and post-Civil War New Orleans) arguing over the importance and authenticity of three different texts, each of which progressively displaces, or “de-authorizes,” the centrality of the preceding one. Thus, at the outset of the play we are introduced to the overeager English scholar Vivian Ezra (Laara Sadiq), who reveals to New York publisher Randall Wellington, Jr. (Andrew Wheeler) that she has discovered the long-lost manuscript that gives the play its title, the final masterwork of the iconoclastic Irish-Jewish writer Gordias Carbuncle (John Murphy), a fictional James Joyce-like character who died in Paris in 1940, in advance of the Nazi invasion. The book was to have been a 1,000-page novel in which each of the 100 chapters would be told by a different voice in a different place on the globe at a different time in history, all the stories at once compiled by, filtered through, and eventually deconstructed by the consciousness of an overarching Herculean consciousness. Thought lost for more than 60 years, Ezra has discovered the manuscript in the apartment of Carbuncle’s former research assistant, Gwendolyn Jackson (Sadiq), and has brought it to Wellington to publish, as his father, Randall Wellington, Sr. (Wheeler) was Carbuncle’s publisher. In doing so, she hopes to secure Carbuncle’s place in literary history, but also to secure her own fame as his scholarly amanuensis. Enter Pauline Newberry (Cherissa Richards), a postmodern black novelist who is about to publish a work of historical fiction about an obscure African-American woman expat writer in Paris, Selma Thomas (Richards again), whom Newberry posits had an affair with Carbuncle. Galleys of her novel just happen to be at hand, and at the urging of Wellington—who arranged for his meetings with Ezra and Newberry to overlap—she begins to read from the scene in which Carbuncle appears. Ezra is incensed at the portrait of her literary hero, whose ghost it should be noted she communicates with throughout this long opening scene. But in exchange for another textual artifact, the 1936 Paris diary of Carbuncle that has been willed by Jackson to Wellington, Jr., Ezra eventually concedes to the terms of the publisher: 10% royalties and a marketing tie-in with Newberry’s novel.
The Paris diary of Carbuncle then becomes the central text of Act Two; but it doesn’t add to Carbuncle’s luster, as Vivian had hoped. Rather, it begins the process of debunking the myth of his artistic genius. Indeed, taken together, the two scenes staged from the diary’s pages—an entry detailing a visit from Jackson in which Carbuncle refuses her demands for scholarly credit, and for love, and the entry documenting the scene between Carbuncle and Thomas in which he convinces Thomas to sell him one of her stories for inclusion in his Eternal Hydra manuscript—at once de-authorize Vivian’s Act One account of Carbuncle’s solitary genius and re-authorize Newberry’s argument for the unacknowledged importance of Thomas as a writer unjustly written out of the record of literary modernism. And the exchange in between the staged scenes from the diary in which, back in the present-day, Ezra and Newberry argue in Vivian’s office about the ghosting of Thomas’s story nicely shows the stakes (personal and professional) of the competing interpretive imperatives of the two women on behalf of their respective authors.
Finally, in the third act, we get Selma’s story literally taking centre stage, as back in Wellington, Jr.’s office in present-day New York, the crucial chapter 72 of Eternal Hydra is dramatized for us. In it, we learn about the life of Selma’s grandmother (Richards), a former slave and expert cobbler who goes to work for an educated Creole shop owner, Leon LaBas (Wheeler). LaBas is backing the political ambitions of a white politician from the north, Henry Warmoth (Murphy), who wants to be governor of Louisiana, and needs both the black vote and the support of local white insiders like Sarah Briggs (Sadiq) to achieve his goals. This he does, but not before LaBas is killed in the famous riot of 1866, and not before Selma’s grandmother is talked into selling her shoes to Warmoth so that he can in turn buy the affections of Briggs. This last transaction nicely materializes the ethics—and economics—of authorship at the heart of this dense play, and to this end it is wholly appropriate that the disenfranchised black woman whose voice has been triply appropriated on its way into Carbuncle’s manuscript (and which also ensures the fragmentation of that manuscript), should get the last word. Commenting on the experience of seeing Warmoth give a speech after having secured the governorship he so coveted, and during which he paraphrases from a previous conversation with her, Selma’s grandmother says: “To hear him say that. Felt like me up there, onstage. Not him at all. You never know. Might just be my voice coming from his mouth.” I wonder how many folks watching Obama’s victory speech last night felt the same way.
I have gone on at length about the plot of Piatigorsky’s play because it is so complicated. But the structure is also abetted by a number of unique theatrical conceits, not least the double- and triple-casting of parts. This gives, as Dunn commented in a wonderfully generous presentation to my Introduction to Drama class (where we’re studying the play), each of the actors a satisfyingly complex composite character arc, in which parallels between different roles add thematic resonance and symbolic texture to the play more generally. But it is tricky to at once suggest connections between different characters played by the same actor and ensure that each character is sufficiently distinguished in audience members’ minds. Happily, the entire cast is up to the challenge. Then, too, there are the quasi-omniscient narrative asides to the audience, also undertaken by all of the actors at different points in the play, and also helping to problematize the idea of single authorship. These could easily have become clichéd conspiratorial winks, but the actors wisely vary their deliveries depending on the specific content of the message they’re relaying to us, and their own conception of their authority or vulnerability at that moment. All of this is further enhanced by Dunn’s choice to use a thrust stage, with the outs to the audience thus occurring to three different sides of the theatre space.
There is much more I could say about this gorgeous production, including David Roberts’ amazing all-wood set, with its hidden drawers and cubby-holes that are opened at different moments by the actors to reveal crucial objects and icons. The sound design by Owen Belton is a rich mix of period music and an original electronic score that Dunn suggested to my class was like an impossible knot slowly being untangled. As apt a metaphor as any for Dunn’s own incredibly patient and intelligent approach to the hidden depths of this play—and to our experience in watching the results.