Culture  Tremblay’s transvestite

TNC’s Hosanna’s minimalist existentialism

Set in early 1970s Montreal, Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna explores issues of identity and self-definition through the eyes of self-identified transvestite Hosanna, and her boyfriend Cuirette. Hosanna is confused – “I’m neither a man nor a woman,” she says – and Cuirette see-saws from supportive to exasperated. Director Scott Leydon’s production at Tuesday Night Cafés an expansive gay/trans* depiction, forgoing a narrow introspective focus and tackling complicated issues both personal and interpersonal, examining the ways in which the individual and their surroundings influence one another. Hosanna’s existentialism explores many axes, looking at gender and sexuality as well as the difficulties of aging, dealing with unemployment, and mending strained family ties. Leydon’s production, solidly minimalist and supported by the cast’s assurance and measured delivery, successfully depicts the relations between authenticity and performance.

The play unfolds late at night in Hosanna’s apartment. Hosanna, costumed as Elizabeth Taylor and fresh from social humiliation, returns from a rival drag queen’s Halloween party. Cuirette arrives shortly afterward, joining her in a long and often quarrelsome discussion, occasionally broken up by his own tangential rants. Hosanna takes centre stage for most of the second act, straddling a chair, emulating this physical barrier between her and the audience by recounting a detailed version of her success at the party – which turns out to be a deceitful fantasy – before backtracking and telling the audience how the evening actually unfolded.

Leydon first read Tremblay’s work last year on a friend’s recommendation. Involved with Players’ Theatre as well as the student strike, Leydon saw the potential of putting on Tremblay at McGill. “I thought it’d be great to do this at McGill,” says Leydon, “to bring awareness to Quebec history.” While Leydon attaches a significant level of importance to the historical roots of the play, the questions of identity that Hosanna explores fit nicely into the realm of contemporary self-questioning. “I know what I want in the theatre,” Tremblay once said. “I want a real political theatre, but I know that political theatre is dull. I write fables.”

The authentic (hidden) body and the way we dress it for performance was an apt political metaphor for Tremblay, but does not come across as clearly in Leydon’s production.

“When the blinking pharmacy sign [outside the window] goes out,” explains Leydon, “Hosanna is no longer rooted in her physical location in a Montreal slum, and is then able to escape into fantasy.” Leydon sees the historical setting as a pillar of his production, but it is only rarely highlighted with certain elements such as the blinking light. For the most part, action is isolated to Hosanna’s breach-free apartment, giving it a timeless quality. The phone rings a few times in the first act, but we never hear the caller’s voice. Cuirette talks about their taxi driver, but we never see or hear him. Reality is flipped upside down within the world of the play: existential musings are mostly tangible, while the outside world remains blurry.

Daniel Carter is a natural as Hosanna: his performance depicts the gradual surfacing of Hosanna’s layers. Hosanna swings from man to woman, often finding herself somewhere in between. Although his direct interpellations and eye contact with the crowd tend to diminish the overall effect of solitary anguish, Carter, for the most part, navigates the intricacies of his role seamlessly, even managing to shed real tears. Cameron Oram, in the role of pot-bellied biker boyfriend Cuirette, is initially a backdrop to Hosanna’s struggle, but manages to build up a certain intensity as his frustrations increasingly parallel and overlap those of Hosanna.

The cast’s acting ability is a pillar for the success of Tremblay’s meta approach. Leydon shows us performers performing, reminding us that we are constantly playing a role in our own lives.

Fleshing out the unadorned script, TNC’s  set adds a lushness to the play, anchoring the characters’ theoretical explorations. Rather than choosing to use a relatively bare stage, the three-dimensionality of Hosanna’s world makes her reflections more tangible as everyday trans* challenges. While Hosanna explores somewhat abstract dichotomies of fantasy/reality and authenticity/performance, Leydon manages to keep audiences engaged with a quotidian tinge. Hosanna’s party flop is only a single event in her ongoing identity crisis; her intense self-questioning in turn brings her back to hopelessly dwelling on this single event.

The imperfections in Leydon’s production are quickly forgotten in light of the bigger picture. The bunched-up seams in Hosanna’s costumes remind us that she is wearing multiple layers, and that these layers aren’t completely opaque. The actors stumble at times – a few lines were stuttered, a shoe strap broke, and pins fell off Oram’s jacket – but these flaws only strengthened the metaphor of theatre as imperfect reflection of real life.

Hosanna leaves many of the questions it raises unanswered – but the point is that there are no definite and universal answers. Our daily struggles are manifestations of the abstract and esoteric questions we ask ourselves about what is real and what is performance. Leydon’s production successfully communicates these links by attaching them to a personal experience.

Hosanna will be playing from February 13 – 16 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $6 for students and seniors, and $10 for general admission.