Monday, March 15, 2004

Theatre Tuesday: The Syringa Tree

Okay, I've seen The Syringa Tree, a one woman-show currently playing at CanStage, twice now: once with Caroline Cave in the role; once with Yanna McIntosh.

The first time (with Cave), I liked it. Then, I saw it two days later (with McIntosh) and I was extremely bored. This has nothing to do with McIntosh's performance. It's just that with a second viewing, Pamela Gien's script's many flaws were painfully obvious.

Anyway, most everyone else in Toronto is raving about it. [Toronto Star/Richard Ouzounian: five stars -- "This is what the theatre should be."; John Coulbourn/Toronto Sun: five stars -- "Imagine, if Ruebens and Caravaggio had painted the same subject."]

Kamal Al-Solaylee -- whose reviewing I'm beginning to like more and more -- gives the dissenting view:

For the current CanStage production, the role of Elizabeth -- in addition to the two dozen other characters that populate the play -- is performed in rotation at different performances by two actors, Yanna McIntosh (who's black) and Caroline Cave (who's white).

While there's a whiff of stunt casting and profiteering from the ever-entrepreneurial CanStage, it unwittingly proves to be an apt strategy for a play that sees life in strictly black or white, and whose approach to that life is safely and predictably sentimental. This is not feel-good, but feel-bloody-superior, theatre.

Nothing wrong with a dose of sentimentality; the American popular canon (to which The Syringa Tree rightfully belongs, if not now, then in its next incarnations as a novel and film) would be bankrupt without it. But here, the very complicated and explosive politics of South Africa are rendered in such an uncritical, touchy-feely way that the play reduces characters (especially Afrikaners) and story lines into caricatures and tokens.

The world of The Syringa Tree is divided between two essentially drawn sets of families: the kind white liberals of the Graces and the servile black nobles of Salamina and her daughter Moliseng, whose life and fate fill the play's otherwise vacuous political agenda.

Structurally, Gien spends too much time on Elizabeth's childhood, perhaps because the perspective of a young child helps her to avoid asking harsher questions. By the time Elizabeth has developed the political consciousness that makes her leave South Africa for the U.S., "the land of the free and brave" -- another unexamined assertion, given that only a decade earlier blacks were officially segregated in parts of the American South -- events as cataclysmic as the abolishment of apartheid are given cursory stops. Gien is more interested in the personal past than the collective future.
Dude, exactly! The Syringa Tree is anti-political theatre. It pats you on the head and says, "Hurrah! We beat apartheid! It's the end of history!"

My friend SB, who saw both shows too and is brown, adds this, "None of the reviews I read said what I thought was perfectly obvious: When Caroline does the show, you sympathize with the whites more; When Yanna does it, you sympathize more with the blacks." [I'm paraphrasing from a conversation here, but that was the jist of it.]

I don't really agree with SB on this, but her comments -- plus the fact that Kamal was the only one to see through this play -- just reminded me how old, white and male so many of Toronto's theatre reviewers are and how that can sometimes inhibit any interesting or provocative discussion about a play -- often because of politically-correct self-censorship. You may not agree with SB or Kamal, but their comments are sooo much more engaging than "This is what theatre should be."

[This isn't to bash old, white males! Heck, I'll be one in a few short decades and I hope that people will (still?) be interested in what I have to say....]

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