It’s the most famous scene in Michel Tremblay’s contemporary classic, Hosanna.
It comes at the top of the second act when the title character, an anguished Montreal drag queen, unveils a chronicle of disaster in telling us what really happened when she showed up at a Hallowe’en costume ball, dressed as Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra.
It’s an extraordinary moment of theatre and a high point of this new TotoToo production. But we shouldn’t really call it a “moment,” not when it consists of a monologue lasting more than thirty minutes and taxes the resources of actor Barry Daley to the utmost.
The scene proves to be an emotionally compelling tour de force, its intimacy heightened by the production’s venue — the new Live On Elgin space. There’s pain here, also slivers of corrosive humour in the glimpses Daley’s performance gives us into the human comedy as it exists in one particular underground culture.
It’s a fading culture because events over the last four decades have turned Tremblay’s play into a period piece. But Daley’s monologue, an extended journey into Hosanna’s troubled psyche, still proved a show-stopper the other night. Daley harnesses the urgency and — importantly — the joual rhythms of the still serviceable English translation by Bill Glassco and John Van Burek in laying bare some messy emotional realities and in probing the shifting nature of identity
But the key reason it works so well in Jim McNabb’s production — a production attentive to the material’s profane but heartfelt truths — is that it is in unusual harmony with the rest of the play. Unlike some productions of Hosannah, this scene is not just the big set piece around which everything else circles.
Hosanna’s state of mind is patently obvious from the moment the lights go up on the first act and we see her returning, angry and humiliated from the midnight party, to her grungy Plaza Saint-Hubert flat. In these darkest moments of the night, the costume on which she worked for so long, and the carefully applied make-up, seem like tawdry travesties of unfulfilled yearning. And this is not only because of how she looks but because of the way she carries herself. Daley, portraying a character in flight from a happening whose cruelties have shredded her own feelings of self-worth, understands the potency of body language: her apparel no longer seems like a confident symbol of the Montreal drag culture but rather a cheap and pathetic emblem of defeat.
It’s a hallmark of Daley’s performance that he consistently contrasts the artifice, which Hosanna has long considered her lifeline, with the painful truths lingering beneath.
We’re getting a nuanced portrait here. We’re getting pride, petulance and profanity. We’re getting the cutting comedy of bitchiness, especially when Daley’s Hosanna rails against her rival and nemesis, the unseen Sandra whose role in her Halloween humiliation looms large in her tortured memory. But we’re also sensing Hosanna’s true vulnerability and her need to come to terms with who she really is. The emotional arc she must travel is at the heart of this play — but what sustains it dramatically is the presence in the story of her biker lover, Cuirette.
Some productions of the play treat Cuirette as little more than a prop for Hosanna’s pyrotechnics. But at TotoToo we’re getting balance. John Collins, excellent as Cuirette, provides a strong reminder that this is not just a a play about a self-absorbed drag queen’s meltdown and acceptance of her true nature; it’s also about a relationship, an important relationship, in jeopardy. The play ends on a note of fragile hope, but without Cuirette there would be no hope at all.
Collins’s Cuirette is no motorcycle poster boy. He’s on the verge of sagging middle age, he’s conscious of the fact that he’s becoming a parody of what he once was, and there’s hollowness under those moments of jaunty posturing. But he’s more clear-eyed about his nature than Hosanna — also more conscious of his defects, so he does feel shame about having been an accomplice in her humiliation. Collins is also an actor who understands the importance of listening in a performance; witness his use of an attentive silence in the first act as an increasingly strident Hosanna begins unravelling. And of course, he plays a key role in bringing further substance to the unseen twilight culture which makes its presence felt in this play.
This production belongs in the upper echelons as a beautifully integrated treatment of a landmark Canadian stage work. Indeed it erases memories of a sadly misconceived Stratford production a couple of seasons ago. TotoToo wisely understands that although Hosanna is about a drag queen, it demands far more than just a drag act in performance.
Hosanna by Michel Tremblay
Translated by Bill Glassco and John Van Burek
A TotoToo production
Live On Elgin to Jan. 30
Director: Jim McNabb
Hosanna: Barry Daley
Cuirette: John Collins