He­len’s Neck­lace is fi­nally found at Cana­dian Rep The­atre pro­duc­tion

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - ARTS - J. KELLY NESTRUCK

He­len’s Neck­lace

CANA­DIAN REP THE­ATRE, BERKE­LEY STREET THE­ATRE, TORONTO Writ­ten by Carole Fréchette Di­rected by Ken Gass Star­ring: Ako­sua Amo-Adem, Zo­rana Sadiq, He­len Tay­lor ★★★

Di­rec­tor Ken Gass has fi­nally found He­len’s Neck­lace. Que­bec play­wright Carole Fréchette’s 2002 drama, about a Cana­dian tourist search­ing for a lost string of pearls in an un­named Mid­dle Eastern city, has never quite landed right with me.

The short, po­etic two-han­der ex­am­ines West­ern priv­i­lege – but

it has of­ten struck me, de­spite the self-aware­ness and em­pa­thy of the writ­ing, as an ex­am­ple of it.

In pre­vi­ous pro­duc­tions I’ve seen, a well-known white fe­male ac­tor has taken cen­tre stage as He­len, while a lesser-known male ac­tor of colour has played all the Mid­dle Eastern char­ac­ters – a con­struc­tion worker, a griev­ing mother and a refugee. Th­ese are all the peo­ple He­len en­coun­ters on a taxi ride look­ing for a “lighter than air” piece of jew­ellery that some­how slipped off while she was in town for a con­fer­ence.

He­len’s Neck­lace has of­ten ap­peared like the dra­matic equiv­a­lent of a lazy dis­patch from a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent – where all the lo­cal colour is pro­vided by in­ter­views with taxi drivers.

In the past, I’ve ended up want­ing to wring He­len’s neck when she re­peats the show’s re­cur­ring mantra (as trans­lated by John Mur­rell): “We can’t go on liv­ing like this!”

Gass’s lovely, low-key new pro­duc­tion for the Cana­dian Rep The­atre com­pany – in Toronto for a brief run be­fore it heads to Burling­ton, Ont. – re­ally opens up Fréchette’s writ­ing to broader mean­ing, how­ever.

The di­rec­tor, for­merly of Fac­tory The­atre, has cast three women in the play: Ako­sua AmoA­dem, Zo­rana Sadiq and He­len Tay­lor. They al­ter­nate and some­times over­lap as He­len – and take turns play­ing the men and women she en­coun­ters.

Tay­lor, a white ac­tor, gives us the He­len I’ve grown to dis­like over var­i­ous pro­duc­tions of the play. She por­trays her as a frag­ile, flighty woman who in a for­eign coun­try (for­eign, to her) only sees those around her af­ter she loses sight of her neck­lace. She’s the very pic­ture of en­ti­tle­ment.

When Sadiq plays He­len, how­ever, a dif­fer­ent con­cep­tion of the char­ac­ter emerges – of a woman who has grown up in a cold, peace­ful, north­ern coun­try in­stead of a hot, war-torn, Mid­dle Eastern one, sim­ply by cir­cum­stance of birth. There’s some­thing com­pellingly dis­lo­cated about Sadiq’s per­for­mance, very guarded, like the neck­lace she lost was a shield she was us­ing to pro­tect her­self on this trip.

Then there’s the He­len played by Amo-Adem, a black ac­tor who car­ries all the char­ac­ters she in­car­nates with great power. I felt deeply for He­len’s loss, the free­dom and the con­fi­dence that this par­tic­u­lar neck­lace rep­re­sented to her. For her strug­gle to re­late that feel­ing to the larger losses she en­coun­ters on her jour­ney.

Amo-Adem helped me un­der- stand that Fréchette’s play is as much about the borders be­tween the in­ner life and the outer world as be­tween this coun­try and that one. How can it be that we will cry over a mis­placed ob­ject but might not over a starv­ing child around the cor­ner or around the world? How can we weigh one emo­tion against an­other – with­out turn­ing against feel­ing al­to­gether?

“You came here to cry, lady,” a man played by Amo-Adem chas­tises He­len. And then, later, as He­len, Amo-Adem cries.

The triple, fluid cast­ing cre­ates com­plex­ity – or re­veals it – and the di­ver­sity of the ac­tors re­duces the oth­er­ing as­pect of Fréchette’s writ­ing.

The play runs from Nov. 11 in Toronto; Nov. 15-18 at Burling­ton Per­form­ing Arts Cen­tre, Burling­ton, Ont.

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