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Friday, 12 August 2011

Review: Hosanna - Timed out

Gareth Potter as Hosanna, Oliver Becker as Cuirette. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedmann.

By Michael Tremblay
Directed by Weyni Mengesha

The Story: The drag-queen Hosanna returns home from a Halloween party, dressed as Cleopatra, where she has been upset. It transpires that her lover Cuirette has had a hand in some joke that has been played upon her, and while they fight and throw insults and talk by turns, the gradual story is revealed, and so are the men underneath.

Here’s what made Hosanna a major force when it was first produced in the early 1970’s: 1) it followed the Quiet Revolution and FLQ crisis in Quebec; 2) it was less than five years after homosexuality was decriminalized; 3) it was written in a Quebecois dialect making it immediately familiar to its audiences, the English translation of which retained its rhythms.

I grew up after the Quiet Revolution on the East Coast, a region with economic problems so gargantuan and immediate that the problem of Quebecois identity - the allegory which Hosanna represents - really didn’t register. So chances are I would have struggled to connect to the play on that level, even if the Bloc Quebecois had not recently been decimated from Canada’s political map. Problem number one with producing Hosanna for modern Canadian audiences.

Problem number two: Not only is being gay legal, gay marriage is also legal, so the issue of simply being gay is no longer as much an issue in Canada as being gay with AIDS, or being transgender when healthcare covers only a portion of the costs associated with either.

I’m not a director. I don’t know what goes into decisions that are made for a character, set, costume etc. I’m not an actor. I don’t know how decisions are made for movement or delivery. I am an audience. And I could tell right away that I was not connecting to either actors or production in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s production of Hosanna that opened August 10.

But the general issue of questioning one’s identity? Now there’s a theme to which I could relate – it rings true for anyone who has to shift between regions, countries, genders or races. So this alone is where the production could have held me; somewhat tentatively like a cat with a claw-snag, but the potential was there.

Claude Lemieux is known by his drag-queen name Hosanna, and is obsessed with Elizabeth Taylor in her role as Cleopatra (four layers of identity, in case you’re counting). She has been given a humiliating comeuppance by some drag rivals, in which her lover Cuirette (aka Raymond Buloc – two levels) has played a part, and they exchange bitter, cruel barbs designed to shred each other, but which have the additional result of stripping away the layers of their false identities and defenses until only the essential and vulnerable men remain. If this had been the only focus of the play, I think I would have been moved more than I was by the production.

Oliver Becker plays Raymond/Cuirette, a leather-clad biker gone to seed, and he is better in the gruff, cruel parts of the character than in parts that reveal Raymond’s softer, caring centre. Quebec-born Gareth Potter is the title character and he carefully brings Hosanna back to the man she was. The rapidly-changing, raw emotion in Mr. Potter’s features as he directly addresses the audience is wonderfully moving, but still a little too bitter to truly heartrending. And although the look of his character curiously recalls Betty Page more than the diva Elizabeth Taylor, monstrous cruelty with which he and Mr. Becker exchange abuses is worthy of Ms. Taylor’s performance in Virginia Woolf.

The set, designed by Michael Gianfranceso is slightly tawdy, cluttered and recall a slightly earlier time, although I doubt the play needs to stay in Montreal or the 1970’s. This may be the biggest problem with the play as directed, it simply felt out of time.  The Cleopatra costume by Dana Osbourne is glamorous and worn fantastically by Mr. Potter – weirdly, this may also be a detriment, because it is hard to believe that Hosanna was ever anything but the belle of her ball while wearing it.

Ultimately, it is unfortunate that fine actors end up in uneven productions of plays that should be amazing. It annoys me to anticipate being blown away, only to be left with an irritating whisper in my ear, “this should have been better”.

Hosanna continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until September 24.

Oliver Becker as Cuirette, Gareth Potter as Hosanna. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedmann.

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