Despite updated casting, play feels dated
1/2 (out of 4) By Carole Fréchette, translated by John Murrell, directed by Ken Gass. Until Nov. 11 at the Berkeley St. Theatre Upstairs, 26 Berkeley St. (canadianstage.com and 416368-3110) and from Nov. 16-18 at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre, 440 Locust St., Burlington (burlingtonpac.ca and 905-6816000).
Carole Fréchette wrote this play in 2000 during a residency of Francophone writers in Beirut. The title character searches a conflict-ravaged Middle Eastern city for a lost necklace, encountering locals who put her experiences into perspective.
Afemale actor usually plays Helen, and a male actor the taxi driver Nabil and other people Helen meets. John Murrell’s English translation has received high-profile productions at Tarragon (2004) and Shaw (2012).
Ken Gass offers a new approach in this staging for his own Canadian Rep Theatre: Three female actors of varied cultural and ethnic backgrounds (Akosua Amo-Adem, Zorana Sadiq, Helen Taylor) play all the roles, which Gass hopes will come closer “to recognizing the universality of Helen’s journey.”
But surely the reality underlying the play is that experiences are not universal and that the lives of people in the Global North and South frequently remain incommensurable.
There is a cool elegance to Gass’s staging, as the actors share the lines, sometimes overlapping, sometimes speaking alone, moving through André du Toit’s striking beams of light in Snezana Pesic’s prettily flowing, silky blouses.
Against this beauty, the anger, pain and resilience of the people Helen meets stand in relief.
But the years are increasingly unkind to Helen’s Necklace: regardless of the origins of the actors, it comes across as an attempt to assuage guilt and cope with privilege by projecting onto the experiences of others. If artists and audiences believe the play’s refrain — “we cannot go on living like this” — then maybe we shouldn’t go on staging plays like this either.
Why not reach into the deep (and virtually unknown to us here in Canada) canon of plays by writers from the Middle East. Or why not cede the stage to new arrivals from Syria or elsewhere and have them tell their stories?
Karen Fricker is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KarenFricker2
Akosua Amo-Adem, left, Zorana Sadiq and Helen Taylor star in director Ken Gass’s updated production of the Carole Fréchette play Helen's Necklace at the Berkeley St. Theatre Upstairs in Toronto.