Thursday 7 March 2013

How Has My Love Affected You certainly affected me

HHMLAY is at once brave, clever, challenging and insightful. It also strikes me as an unethical and offensive intrusion into the life and spirit of the playwright's mother.

According to its pre-performance publicity, it's a "memoir". Playwright (and son) Marcus Yousef plays himself and tots up 90 minutes of monologue providing countless memories. His perspectives -- now, as a middle-aged man, about life with mother ever since the day mom and dad divorced when he was a teenager some 30 years back because dad was a serial adulterer -- are poignant and compelling.

No, the primary problem with HHMLAY is not its production or scriptural values per se. Not even the uneasy Freudian gestalt created by playwright/actor/son Marcus having his own teen-age son Zak on stage. Zak is there mostly to sing catchy Veda Hille original songs about his Grandma's idiosyncracies taken from pounds of note scraps found in her former lodgings over an eight month stay in the 2400 Motel on Kingsway in EastVan.  But Zak also has a role-within-a-role to act as sounding board and confidante for Dad playing out his memory schtick for all to see.

Here's the problem. Mom is still alive. This crucial central fact is not revealed in any of the play's advance publicity nor in the playwright/actor/son's interviews nor director/dramaturge Rachel Ditor's interview nor even revealed in the dialogue until the closing moments of the play.

What struck this viewer dumb was the real-time video of Mom in her 2013 Vancouver nursing home special care unit that was shot up onto the bedsheet projection screen. What we see is a woman in her 70's breathing and blinking in her nightclothes in her bed but utterly ravaged and consumed by Alzheimer's. A video made of a woman who could never have known her son would exploit his relationship with her -- without her knowledge and consent -- while she is still alive. Who in her right mind would agree to have her son air an index of all her neuroses and the ones she allegedly induced in him for commercial purposes?

No, had the play opened with that video clip, many in the audience would have exited the theatre in a heartbeat out of empathy for her, though surely not the ones giving the performance a standing-o and shouting Bravo! robustly as Vancouverites are wont to do too often by rote. (BLR I daresay has never ranted quite like this before : but this production generated a nagging ethical itch I can find no honest way to scratch simply by calling it "drama".)

Still. I did commence the piece arguing HHMLAY is "at once brave, clever, challenging and insightful". If one were able to imagine the play as historical fiction about a deceased parent, the values of it as drama would emerge. Here's a peek.

In the 1870's Count Leo Tolstoy said it best when he opened Anna Karenina so brilliantly : "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Scroll forward 100 years. Yousef's Mom lived her life until her cognitive collapse in a seemingly endless internal monologue through writing -- journals; dream diaries; memos; sketches; scraps of these words, volumes of those. Mostly filled with self-absorption as such media inherently do. A 70's Berkeley product, she marries a dashing and brilliant Egyptian immigrant. They have a daughter early on in their romance whom they adopt out. Inconvenient, Yousef strongly suggests, to hippie college zoomers agitating for the Free Speech Movement in Sproul Plaza.

When they settle and marry, they have Marcus. The ensuing decade brings on the dalliances and the inevitable divorce -- bitter, costly, devastating to a woman sick to death of the male patriarchy values that have nearly consumed her. Any man's vehement protests that he is the victim when his spouse refuses to just let him be who he is pretty well sums up all that hypocrisy. Though made fun of over centuries by stage drama, it's always corrupt and demeaning to all who are touched by it.

Not surprisingly, therapy lives large in HHMLAY, both hers and her son's, the latter of which Yousef advises is ongoing. He tries to make a joke it will end -- at least with his mother as primary subject matter -- once the 16 remaining public performances of his self-analysis at the Revue Stage come to an end. But then sniggers to Zak : "Unless we take this on the road...!"

Naomi Sider's cardboard box set balloons to fill the entire Revue stage north / south / east / west and thus cleverly documents the matriarch's insatiable hoarding tendencies. Reminiscent of Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs. Projection designer Jamie Nesbitt's screen work of age-old family photos on all these boxes is cleverly wrought, aided by Marsha Sibthorpe's signature lighting prowess.

So, if one could see this work imagining it as truly "memoir", filled with "truthiness" and "factoids" and the usual f 1.4 personal perspective of memory, it would carry itself successfully. Yousef's late-stage riffs summing up all the myriad positive character traits and noteworthy paradoxes that comprise the unique, complex woman who raised him gripped me fast. Nice nice work.

But I can't forget the program note. Yousef proclaims he is "interested in the recognize the irresolvable contradictions that are at least part of any human being's time on this earth". This play is just that. A contradiction that is irresolvable. Unsettling. Disquieting. Not right. Out of respect for the living it should just close. Immediately. And perhaps be re-mounted years down the road when it truly might warrant the designation "memoir".

Fact is the ACT Silver Commissions Project to feature new works and experimental drama at the Revue Stage is laudable and arguably my favourite component of ACT's yearly productions. Let us hope this questionable aberration in ethos and judgment does not jeopardize the Project's good name and reputation in future.


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