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Saturday, 16 August 2014

Review: Christina, the Girl King

Jenny Young as Christina; John Kirkpatrick as Descartes.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Christina, The Girl King
by Michel Marc Bouchard, Translated by Linda Gaboriau
Director: Vanessa Porteous
Designers: Michael Gianfrancesco (set, costumes), Kimberly Purtell (lighting), Alexander MacSween (composer and sound)
Featuring: Jenny Young, Graham Abbey, Claire Lautier, John Kirkpatrick, Rylan Wilke

For a biographical account of Christina of Sweden's life, read Christina, Queen of Sweden, by Veronica Buckley. For a story that uses Christina as a fulcrum for political, anthropological and philosophical discussion, see the production of Christina, the Girl King on stage now at the Stratford Festival. One does not necessarily follow the other.

This is hardly new, of course - the Bard himself played somewhat loose with facts when he nosed a better story, and Bouchard has done the same. What is more problematic is the very modern, very liberal filter which has been placed on a 17th century context. The resulting play has elements of international, gender and family politics, plus an ongoing debate between religious philosophies. So while Bouchard has crafted a highly engaging play, the story itself lacks focus and the audience is left feeling rather ambivalent towards the play's title character. 

This is not the fault of the director and her cast, who appear to have the focus the story itself lacks.  Ms. Porteous' debut is solid - she and her designers use the small thrust stage of the Studio well, making it appear more epic than it really is.

Jenny Young, starring as Christina, has both the frenetic energy and vulnerability of a young girl in emotional turmoil, and the outward haughtiness of an ambitious queen. The commanding presence felt when Ms. Young takes the stage would hold even footing with her more experienced colleagues Ms. McKenna or Ms. Peacock, should we ever be lucky enough to see such casting.

The entire cast is quite good, in fact. Rylan Wilke and John Kirkpatrick are memorable as Karl Gustav and Descartes, respectively; Mr. Wilke takes a rather affable sad-sack Karl and morphs him into a compassionate man with royal presence, and Mr. Kirkpatrick presents a philosopher with fire in his eye and caution in his words.
Claire Lautier as Countess Ebba Sparre; Jenny Young as Christina.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Claire Lautier, who plays the object of Christina's affections as Countess Ebba Sparre, does so with great sensitivity - and an edge of disquiet that gives a great deal of weight to Sparre's ultimate disavowal of her feelings for the queen. Oppositely, Graham Abbey gives a truly hilarious turn as the narcissistic Count Johan, but gives the audience an even greater gift in a single speech meant to be a litany for the successful rule by a political leader. To hear Johan tell it, not much has changed in 400 years.

The cast member who ultimately chewed up the scenery, however, is Patricia Collins as Christina's mother, Maria Eleanora. The original ice-queen, and paired with an eerie-looking albino (Elliott Loran), her performance as the anti-mother would leave Joan Crawford whimpering in a corner.

So while the cast is great and the direction clear and consistent, at play's end the audience may be left with more questions than resolutions, and this is the play's problem.  Neither a comic nor a tragic figure, Christina spends the rest of her days in self-imposed exile.  Monarchs who abdicate their thrones are not regarded as historical heroes. If that was Bouchard's intent, he needed to choose a different aspect or period of Christina's character on which to focus - that, or play with the facts just a little bit more. 

Christina, The Girl King continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until September 21.
UPDATE: due to popular demand, four extra performances were added to the run for Christina, The Girl King. It now closes on September 28.

Jenny Young as Christina.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

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