The current Canadian Stage production of Martin Crimp’s Cruel and Tender is a bewildering, infrequently powerful telling of a Greek tragedy that has been updated in order to bring recent military disasters unfolding in Africa to the forefront of contemporary thought. The shelf life of this 2005 script may appear to have expired due to the relentless ongoing tragedy unfolding in the news of the world over the past half decade. However, seeing Atom Egoyan’s production of this rather surrealistic take on grotesque inhumanity makes one wonder whether Crimp’s broad stereotypes and undetailed political narratives ever made it onto the shelf in the first place. The talent is certainly apparent as Arsinée Khanjian, Jeff Lillico, Brenda Robins, Daniel Kash, Nigel Shawn Williams, Thomas Hauff and Abena Malika take the stage in a variety of over the top roles that never let up in their varied shades of loud vocal disarray. Robbins and Lilico rise to occasion with skilled renditions of their breathtakingly superficial characters. The rest of the cast however seem to have pumped the idea of strident stylization to the max, delivering performances that are difficult to comprehend as they emote and gesticulate as though they were in fact in an amphitheatre several centuries ago.
There are some fine beautifully rendered physical and vocal moments from both Kash and Khanjian, but they are few and far between. What with all the histrionic activity on the stage one would hope that the design and staging would have softened the misshapen blow of this melodramatic spectacle. Unfortunately this is not the case. A cold cavernous set coupled with jarring, staccato lighting effects and the strange ineffective use of a microphone throughout make the overall production profoundly uneven and largely uninteresting.
Costumes by Debra Hanson are gorgeous, especially a single red dress that provides Khanjian with the opportunity to make a series of gorgeous poses. And to her credit, she takes her directors overall mise en scene to heart and never falters in a relentless attempt to make this character come to life. A few basic directives from Egoyan regarding a gradual buildup of emotion could have served her well.
Had this been an opera it might have all worked out. Unfortunately the lives of these characters is stunted by a script that never moves into any real thought provoking detail about the primary subject it addresses. Africa becomes a mysterious entity told through shallow storylines masquerading as profound atrocity - storylines that have characters appearing as Billie Holiday pseudo-impersonators who never seem to quite make their way into the narrative at hand. The dramaturgical intent is clear regarding the ways in which Western privilege frequently relies upon African stereotypes drawn from familiar images within popular culture. This imagery however never really comes to life in any profound textual manner, depriving spectators of a truly powerful connection to the actual horror of what has occurred historically on a deeply exploited and under nourished continent.
Crimps acclaimed playwriting has proven itself internationally as provocative plots that are brought to life through intriguing narrative forms. Unfortunately the Canadian Stage production is all form, while the content is severely lacking and the direction appears to be out of its element. It might have made a better film.
running at the Bluma Appel Theatre until February 18th