Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region  

the-december-man

Photo courtesy of the NAC, English Theatre.

On December 6, 1989, a young man, carrying an assault rifle (Ruger Mini-14) entered the amphitheatre of an engineering course at the University of Montreal (in the École polytechnique), told the boys to leave the room and then shot 14 female students. That evening will be forever engraved in the memory of Canadians but it also fuelled debates on gun control and violence against women across Canada and even in the United States. The play was first performed in 2007 at the Enbridge playwright’s Festival of New Canadian plays (in Alberta) in 2007, directed by Bob white.

Such is the material for real tragedy but structurally, this situation presents a dramaturgical trap because the public is already very much aware of all the details of the drama. So what is left for the playwright to exploit? Is it really possible to construct a narrative, characters, situations, an arc, tension, beautifully written monologues that tear apart the main character, all the elements that are linked to such tragic circumstances when there is nothing left to discover? That kept occurring to me as I was watching Colleen Murphy’s play, in this recent staging by Sarah Garton Stanley.

Writer Colleen Murphy decided to look at the massacre in a new way by focussing on the tragic weakness that emerged from this story….the mental instability produced by the guilt of one of the young men who was in that room and left when he was told to leave. To play it out, she reverses the chronology and begins the play several years after the events and then moves back in time right to the night of the killing which becomes the moment when the play ends.

The result is not the Catharsis that Aristotle had foreseen but rather the fact that this writer gives us all the clues within the first few moments of the show, to figure it all out. So there is nothing more to say!! WE know what has happened to Jean, the son. We know how his parents have reacted, and the reactions of the family repeat themselves throughout the 95 minutes of the show. How is it possible to go beyond these obstacles when the author refuses any form of psychologically related delving into the development of her characters? The rest is a series of moments of heightened emotional reaction, of growing paranoia which is often focussed on class conflict, on moments of despair and hyper activity.   The examples that set off his reactions remain the same albeit of varying intensities but there is no further insight into what is happening. There is little nuance and the author makes no attempt to go beyond the surface of these characters. There are even moments of inappropriate humour and the presence of a mother whose brutality and limited affectivity in relation to her son, reveals her insensitivity that might have driven her son to his doom, while showing us an individual who almost becomes a caricature in the play. Something does not work. .

Luckily, thanks to the refined performance by Paul Rainville as the father, and to intense overflowing of feelings by Kayvon Kelly as Jean (the son) we were at times touched by their emotions but it is all the result of the actors and not the play.

The blasting of Michael Leon’s pulsating electronic music to mark the transitions between each scene suggested a violent mental landscape pounded by the presence of death and that was highly expressive. As well, the modernist scenography and the way Andrea Lundy’s excellent lighting effects sculpted the the troubling space of the house, created the neutral space of a prison where the human figures seemed to be caught. Again, not the play but the interesting work of set designer Amy Keith is to be congratulated here. Nevertheless, this curious encounter of distanciation and affectivity leaves the general impression that the author did her best of avoid the essence of this troubling encounter…and as a result, something vital was lost. A big disappointment.

The December Man runs in the theatre of the studio of the NAC until November 28.

The December Man by Colleen Murphy

Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley

Sets, props and costume design: Amy Keith

Lighting design Andrea Lundy

Sound Design Michael Leon