It’s a risky business to play the game of comparing tragedies - especially when one of those tragedies is the Holocaust. But Canadian playwright Judith Thompson’s forte is dealing in difficult, provocative issues.
And while her 2010 play Such Creatures doesn’t quite rank with her finest (plays like The Crackwalker and Lion in the Streets - both given local productions in the last few months), she does make a compelling case for the depth of tragedy that surrounds us now - and often goes unnoticed.
The 90-minute play is really a pair of intertwined monologues. The first features Blandy (Gislina Patterson, who also co-produces this Incompletely Strangled Theatre Company show with her director - and dad - Arne MacPherson). She’s a sensitive teen forced into the role of “tough girl” by the circumstances of poverty and neglect, and who faces a fight with another girl that is literally a matter of life and death.
On the other side of the chain link fence that envelops the stage (nicely designed by Jeremy Rampton, and enhanced with appealing video design by jaymez) is Sorele (Doreen Brownstone). She’s a Holocaust survivor who has returned to Auschwitz, where she was imprisoned, to try to make some sense of what happened to her there - and how it’s shaped her life.
Both are women - one barely more than a girl, the other near the end of her life - whose experiences and circumstances have driven them to embrace hate and mistrust. But at the same time, they also share a sense of hope that the world, however terrible, can offer more.
“Evil, of course, is more powerful than good,” Sorele says with resignation before a twinkle sets in her eye. “But sometimes, good gets a good kick in.”
The two also share a love of Shakespeare - a beacon of beauty that shines into their dark worlds.
But beyond that, how similar are their experiences? We’re meant to sympathize with both, but is Blandy really as much a victim of capricious, unthinking hate as Sorele? Can one tragedy really be compared with another?
That’s a question Thompson leaves the audience to wrestle with, but in painting Blandy as a sometimes too-stereotypically “tough girl,” she makes it difficult for us to sympathize with her.
Some sharpening to Patterson’s performance could help there too, though. There’s much to like in it - she handles the machine-gun rapidity of the play’s opening with gusto, and hits the one-liners Thompson sprinkles into her monologue with smart timing.
But Blandy is a deeply conflicted character - a tough talker with a sensitive soul - and seeing more of that, especially at the beginning of the piece, would help us connect with her, and feel the particular tragedy of her life more strongly.
Brownstone finds more nuance in Sorele. She appeared to be using script pages tucked into prop books to help her with some of the longer passages in the play, but that’s fine - the 91-year-old actor is one I’d pay to see read the phone book. She conveys the fire and strength - as well as the dark edges - of her character admirably.
The play’s broad themes - about victimization, the nature of tragedy, good and evil - don’t make this an easy play to digest. But it does still have a curious note of hope that there may be a “brave new world” for such creatures as Blandy and Sorele - and us.
Such Creatures runs at the Colin Jackson Studio (Prairie Theatre Exchange) until January 5.