Reviewed by Jeniva Berger for her site www.scenechanges.com
You might call Beatrice & Virgil a play about a writer getting caught up in things beyond his understanding. At least Lindsay Cochrane’s adaptation of the central part of Yann Martel’s fourth book points in that direction. Not having read Martel’s novel, which apparently turned out to be a particular disappointment after the astounding literary and film success of The Life of Pi, I can understand the quandary that readers had. Part fantasy and part allegory with a realistic setting and a theme that isn’t pleasant, Ms. Cochrane apparently found something that was stage worthy in adapting his book. Her faith is admirable.
You can’t fault the director Sarah Garton Stanley who has given us a well paced production, nor the performers who make the story within a story close to heartbreaking. Damien Atkins is a crisp, matter-of-fact author named Henry who has suffered a dissapointing rejection from his publisher for his novel called The 20th Century Shirt (apparently mirroring Martel’s own dismay when his novel was rejected), begins the play at a lectern at a side of the stage, speaking to an audience about how he overcame his disillusion and turned instead to other interests like theatre and books. Well and good. But then, Henry tells us of a a strange note from another person named Henry, who would like his help about a play he is writing.
Intrigued, Henry accepts the request and is surprised to find that it is the shop of a curmudgeonly taxidermist, played by Pierre Brault. Brault, a multi-talented Ottawa based performer/director/comedian whom I last saw in Toronto in the touring production of his own show 5 O’Clock Bells about iconic Canadian jazz guitarist Lenny Breau, is anything but funny as a single-minded man who believes that within his world of reconstructed dead animals and miniature carvings lies a morality story about the Holocaust. "I felt as if I had stepped back into time," says Henry the writer upon entering his shop, a wondrous concoction itself designed by Amy Keith.
To her credit, Ms. Cochrane does zero in on the wide vision that Martel’s Henry has, in his quest of finding new ways to tell old stories. It certainly is a different way of communicating coming from the mouths of a monkey and a gentle donkey (with the voices of both Atkins and Brault) and it in its own strange way rather lovely to listen to, until we remind ourselves that this is not at all a lovely story.
The taxidermist himself whose accent is hard and whose voice is almost strident, until he takes on the role of one of the animals caught up in the Holocaust when he becomes soft spoken and pliant, is actually far more interesting a character than the other Henry, perpetuating the story of the Holocaust through his animals with all its horrors intact, as a kind of absolution. "That’s why I became a taxidermist, says Henry, "to bear witness."
But there is always that disquieting feeling that the Holocaust shouldn’t be compromised by a gentler way of telling the story through the mouths of animals who are as sympathetic and abused as their human counterparts, even if we’re spared the impact of seeing photos of victims in the concentration camps, and the piles of bodies in trenches and gas chambers from which we have to turn away, but will always remember. Beatrice & Virgil still begs us to pay attention.
Does listening to the quiet and telling voices of Beatrice and Virgil make it any easier to understand – or be reminded that this only happened a mere 75 years ago, not in the 16th century and its Spanish Inquisition with its persecution and killing of the Jews and Muslims, but in the lifetime of many of us.
Certainly Yann Martel and adapter Lindsay Cochrane had only the best of intentions by taking us into this unusual animal kingdom to bear witness. But though man is certainly a strange and sometimes dangerous animal, it will still always be the human connection that speaks to us. Beatrice & Virgil is onstage at the Factory Theatre until May 11. 125 Bathurst Street (at Adelaide). Tickets: 416.504.9971 or online at www.factorytheatre.ca. Pay-what-you-can Sunday Matinees.
Photo: by Joanna Akyol. L to R: Pierre Brault, Damien Atkins.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger