nytheatre.com review by Stephen Kaliski
August 15, 2010
A tidy and fitfully beautiful geometry governs Manon/Sandra, a multinational and multidisciplinary new play about the unexpected closeness of opposite ends of the human spectrum. In fact, playwright Michel Tremblay's fugue of monologues is so pristinely conceived that one almost wishes it were a little sloppier.
From its opening moments, Manon/Sandra insists upon setting up an ultimate contrast. One half of a narrow stage-long track is the austere chamber of Manon (Tina Mitchell), a religious zealot who croons over rosaries. The other half of the track belongs to Sandra (Ken Barnett), a flamboyant and ceaselessly horny transvestite searching for the perfect outfit.
Through alternating monologues, Manon and Sandra confess their respective desires, whether to please God or please the libido, occasionally revealing a chink in the devotional armor. Is God really a worthy partner for Manon's commitment? Can Sandra deal with the shell of the human being that lies beneath the layers of caked makeup?
The inevitable and heartbreaking connection between these people reveals itself slowly. So slowly, in fact, that for the first half of the play, Tremblay only seems concerned with creating two figures who mathematically oppose one another. This insistence on antithesis undermines our ability to identify with Manon and Sandra as actual human beings. One seems to exist merely to counteract the craze of the other.
We suspect that Tremblay might be overcompensating with these extremities early in the play in order to shatter established barriers later. Though it's a bit telegraphed, it's still a welcome development when Manon and Sandra become characters with a relationship at stake, not simply archetypes in a vacuum.
Still, the play struggles to capture this elusive human element. Although Mitchell delivers an appropriately grating, physically brave performance as Manon, the character never rises above a symbol of religious insanity, an endpoint on a spectrum of tragedy without a believable means to that end.
Luckily, the play receives an invaluable boost from the sensational Barnett, who frames Sandra in spectacle but paints her interior with quiet longing and anguish. One particular monologue, in which Sandra reminisces about her childhood home, jars the play out of its structural rigor, temporarily giving it the messy human gravitas it could have used from the beginning. Sandra has the periodic self-awareness and inner tug-of-war that Manon, in her complete obsession, lacks.
With an elegantly developed physical language, Pia Furtado's viewpoints-inspired direction suggests Manon and Sandra's bond in a way the writing often does not. From one side of the track to the other, each actor seems the puppeteer of the other. Although they unfold their stories independently of one another, Furtado creates a lovely symbiotic motion that suggests that these people are closer than we might think.
The technical qualities of the show are simple yet superb. Matt O'Hare's guitar and Helen Yee's violin underscore the entire piece, enhancing the mood of the text. Ji-youn Chang's set and lighting designs perfectly accommodate the geometry of Furtado's direction.
In its cornucopia of performance art disciplines, Manon/Sandra really only falls short as a drama. Had the tangled relationship between the leads pervaded the entire show, the complexity of the script might have matched the sophistication of the technical execution. However, with Tremblay's choice to reveal relationship deliberately, the audience must delay its investment until the closing minutes.