Montreal’s theatre community recently released its newest work, The Assumption of Empire, written by local playwright Ann Lambert, directed by Paul Hawkins, and produced by the Unwashed Grape. The play aims to demonstrate how major worldwide events interact on a local level with important occurrences in the life of an individual, in this instance the play’s heroine, Sophie Wiseman.
We first glimpse Sophie as a middle-aged woman arguing with her husband, and trying to understand and control her 16-year-old daughter. Through flashbacks, we see Sophie’s life as a passionate student, and her affair and eventual marriage to one of her professors. We watch her as she sees the Shah’s departure from Iran in 1979 and the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989, and we witness the impact of these experiences on her worldview. Though an advocate of Quebec independence, as an anglophone, Sophie feels overwhelmed by pressure to vote “No” during the first referendum in 1980. Because her daughter is a student at the college, the 2006 shootings at Dawson have the biggest effect on Sophie’s life. Questions about communism, separatism, feminism, and gun violence are thrown into the mix of political ideas and human emotions – the effect is sometimes overwhelming.
The Assumption of Empire discusses issues currently sparking much debate among artists, writers, and filmmakers, but the play succeeds in tying them into a Montreal point of view by bringing in the question of the sovereignty movement and the Dawson shootings, and looking for links between local and the global events. However, the stages of Sophie’s life do not make the most compelling backdrop – the scenarios of a middle-aged couple trying to save their marriage, a student in love with her professor, and a mother arguing with her teenage daughter are hardly new. Though the play attempts to meet the Unwashed Grape’s goal of “producing entertainment that speaks to the passions and the perplexities of the human heart” by presenting a situation where the heart is indeed deeply involved, it doesn’t particularly speak to the audience or offer any new insights.
The characters of The Assumption of Empire are archetypes playing out very familiar situations. These clichés only have force when new elements enliven them – and in this play this is rarely the case. The story line introduces nothing new and its commentary on these situations is unoriginal; for two and a half hours, the audience watches the characters take the most predictable routes.
The play nevertheless merits some notice, because of the connections it makes between historical events and their impact on a local level. Many of the people involved in the production attended, taught at, or are somehow otherwise connected to Dawson; the play is one way of dealing with the tragedy that occurred there.
Though The Assumption of Empire’s main goal is to investigate interpersonal relations through different stages of life, the assumptions people base their decisions on, and how these decisions can become tainted, the play succeeds most in its capacity to bring seemingly unrelated events together and shed new light on them. The play, though entertaining at times, is mostly an indulgence for those who enjoy fringe festivals and minimalist theatre.
Visit unwashedgrape.com for show times and ticket reservations. The play runs at MainLine Theatre until March 22.