Lion in the Streets
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 10, 2005
The Alternate Theatre—a new company that has migrated here from Montreal, with a mission to "bring the best of contemporary Canadian drama to New York City audiences"—makes a really impressive debut with their production of Judith Thompson's Lion in the Streets. Director Kareem Fahmy has a strong visual sense and a sure guiding hand, and his cast of seven, most of whom are current or recent Columbia MFA students, turn in assured, solid performances. The play's environment is beautifully realized—credit designers Brian Ireland (set), Anne K. Wood (costumes and makeup), Andrew Lu (lighting), and Andrew Papadeas (sound) for working smartly in tandem with Fahmy to devise the consistently stark, dreamlike world in which this show unfolds.
Thompson's script follows the ghost of an eight-year-old girl as she journeys through her hometown, years after her death. She doesn't realize it at first, but she's on a quest to meet her murderer. The press release says that she will learn the redemptive power of love and forgiveness by the end, which I think is entirely incorrect: I'm not sure that Isobel, the poor child of Portuguese immigrants who is this play's central figure, actually learns much of anything from her afterlife travels, except perhaps that the world she was pulled away from too soon is a scary, awful place.
Lion in the Streets reminded me a lot of Martin McDonagh's current play The Pillowman, in fact; like that play, it's an elegantly written horror story, reveling in the darkest nooks of human experience for no apparent reason other than to try to deliver some nasty jolts to its audience. As she floats through her town, latching on to various characters La Ronde-style from one scene to the next, Isobel witnesses a woman being dumped by her philandering husband in front of their best friends at a dinner party, another woman asking a friend to help her kill herself (by copying Ophelia's suicide in Hamlet), an aged priest confessing his lust to a man who was once his altar boy, a Cerebral Palsy victim being interviewed (and later beaten up by) a grasping and patronizing journalist, a young man taking revenge on a boyhood friend who once made a pass at him, and another man masturbating while his fiancée re-enacts for him her brutal rape by a stranger. If there's anything here redemptive—anything even remotely kind or uplifting, even—then I missed it.
But the storytelling, for what it's worth, is savvy and compelling. I liked the way that, in the first act, Isobel deduced the facts of her circumstances as her earthly encounters progressed; and I missed her presence from the play's second half, during which she's relegated mostly to the role of spectator of increasingly cruel events. Tania Molina is superb as Isobel, by the way—convincingly childlike, for one thing, and also resoundingly sympathetic: the perfect guide to this dream-turned-nightmare that she's sharing with us.
The rest of the actors take multiple roles, which gives them great opportunities to shine. Nathan Blew, James Ryan Caldwell, and Jeffrey Clarke take on some 15 parts among them, and they occupy them all so successfully that I wasn't always certain which actor was playing which character until I consulted the program. Rachel Schwartz brings warmth and intelligence to two of the play's more sympathetic characters, the spurned wife and the dying friend; Amanda Boekelheide gets the showiest roles (the woman with Cerebral Palsy and a day care provider who lashes out at her charges' parents) and runs away with them. Only Tracy Weller disappoints, failing to differentiate sufficiently among the four characters she creates here.
On the basis of what I saw, I will be very eager to see what Alternate Theatre does next—they're a sharp, professional troupe with a worthy mission. I don't know how fast I'll see another Judith Thompson play, however, and I hope that Alternate offers us diverse Canadian authors in the future, including some with more interesting messages for their audience.