Bringing Canada to New York: Soulpepper on 42nd Street

Michelle Monteith, Gregory Prest in Of Human Bondage, Soulpepper Theatre. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Last week in New York I had the excitement of seeing what a top-drawer Canadian theatre company, venturing forth, can bring to the stage in a highly demanding world theatre capital.   

Coming from away for the month of July, Toronto’s Soulpepper, is making its U.S. debut ensconced at the Pershing Square Signature Centre on 42nd St. You walk west from Times Square, past blocks of tawdry retail peppered with storied theatre marquees, and, suddenly, just before 10th Avenue, there it is, the end of a glittering series of glass-encased bars and cafes. It was my first time at this stunningly impressive Frank Gehry-designed playground of theatre spaces (three) and studios (two), of varying configurations, sizes, finishes — with a vast, airy shared lobby (complete with bookshop) — where Soulpepper is hosting its summer theatre festival.

It’s four days after Canada Day. And at the top of the stairs from the street entrance is a basket of little Canadian flags.

Among the assortment of award-winning plays and musicals, along with cabarets, readings, forums, audience conversations of Soulpepper’s cross-border foray, is Ins Choi’s highly appealing comedy Kim’s Convenience (which Soulpepper brought to the Citadel in 2014). Spoon River, an original Dora Award-winning Soulpepper musical assembled from the quintessential Americana anthology by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz, is on the playbill too.

Onstage in the Signature Centre’s 294-seat Irene Diamond house, Vern Thiessen’s Of Human Bondage, his adaptation of the sprawling 1915 Somerset Maugham novel, is getting an ingenious, imaginatively theatrical production directed by Soulpepper’s Albert Schultz.

At the dark heart of the story, where Thiessen’s adaptation finds its pulse and its dramatic momentum, is a manic, irrational obsession. The self-destructive fascination of medical student Philip Carey (Gregory Prest) with a ruthlessly manipulative tea shop waitress (Michelle Monteith). Their relationship is the perfect storm of irrational need (his) and ruthless instinct for exploitation (hers).

It’s a chemistry against which Carey’s rational self seems powerless. His friendships, his career prospects, his financial security, his happiness — he places all at risk in scene after scene. And as you see in Prest’s riveting performance, it sends an eminently decent man careening towards despair, mystified by his own assault against his better judgment.

Translating a door-stopper of a novel for the stage means travelling without the baggage of narrative exposition. Carey’s back story as an orphan and art student, the club foot handicap that makes him self-conscious, filter obliquely into an adaptation that feels rich and full. Obsession gets its own vivid image in Schultz’s staging, which locates Carey in a red square centerstage — his own cage, as the director’s note explains — and never lets him leave it.

Obsession resonates in various way in the characters who surround Carey, too,  — all played by the other 11 actors, who disappear into semi-darkness outside the square and play instruments in Mike Ross’s score.

Monteith bravely steps up to the harshness of the terrible Mildred in a vivid performance. Stuart Hughes as a self-destructive artist, Sarah Wilson as a soulful divorcée discarded by Carey in a heartbreaking return to Mildred …. it’s a first-rate ensemble.

Soulpepper Theatre’s Of Human Bondage. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The scenes flow seamlessly: a brilliant piece of stagecraft from Schultz. And in a full evening, the sense of life as a work of art assembled in dark and light, painful trials and glimmerings of happiness — strands in a complex design as the play says — emerges in a powerful way.

Incidentally, Thiessen, the artistic director of Edmonton’s Workshop West, has a distinctly complex pattern of life himself this summer, too — but all in sunny tones. His new play Pugwash opened the 2017 Ship’s Company season in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia. Vimy, undertaken by this year’s ArtsTrek participants in Alberta, opened at Soulpepper’s Toronto headquarters at the end of June.

And now New York, in a festival that’s brought something Canadian to America at a propitious time, as Soulpepper artistic director Schultz referenced, lightly, in his pre-show remarks. 

People everywhere vaguely approve of Canada, generally, if they remember where it is. But for once in life — as enthusiasm for the musical Come From Away has confirmed — the word “Canadian” gets not only a reaction, but a warm one in Trump-hating New York: “You’re from Canada? Take me with you!” said the bartender dispensing little bags of popcorn.   

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