by Lynn on April 28, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

Vivien Endicott-Douglas

At the Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace. Written by Wajdi Mouawad. Translated by Linda Gaboriau. Directed by Richard Rose. Set and costumes designed by Karyn McCallum. Lighting by Kimberly Purtell. Composition and sound by Thomas Ryder Payne. Starring: Dmitry Chepovetsky, Matthew Edison, Vivien Endicott-Douglas, David Fox, Sophie Goulet, Brandon McGibbon, Alon Nashman, Liisa Repo-Martell, Jan Alexandra Smith, R.H. Thomson, Terry Tweed.

“Who am I?” “Where did I come from?” “How do I fit in?” These are some of the questions at the centre of Forests, playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s astonishing play, now at the Tarragon Theatre in its English world premiere.

It starts with Aimée and her husband Baptiste who are overjoyed that Aimée is pregnant and they will soon become first time parents of a girl. But Aimée learns that she has a brain tumor and must decide either to abort the baby and save her own life, or save the baby and sacrifice her own. To add one of many twists, Aimée is in a sense pregnant with twins; one developing in her womb, the other in an embryo-like growth in the middle of her cancerous brain tumor. Aimée’s last wish to her now 16 year-old daughter Loup is to find out who she (Aimée) really was. She was adopted and knows who her real parents are, but not the circumstances of her birth or adoption.

Loup’s journey to find out about her mother and ultimately herself, goes back six generations; crosses continents; includes WWI and the Holocaust; involves incest, rape, loyalty, friendship and love. And through every complication and twist to the story are the same questions: “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?” “How do I fit in?”

Finding one’s roots was also the focus of Scorched, Mouawad’s award winning work that also played at the Tarragon Theatre two years ago. Both Forests and Scorched are part of a four play series, the other being Tideline, and the fourth play is yet to come.

For shear scope Forests is Mouawad’s most epic, ambitious play. The characters are richly drawn, complex, vivid, and bursting with life in all its variations. His writing is both prickly and poetic. He is aided by Linda Gaboriau’s wonderful translation which captures both the grit and elegance in Mouawad’s writing. As Mouawad gets deeper and deeper into the various generations, we hear dialogue which has been echoed by characters years and maybe centuries apart: “I will never desert you.” I promise I will take care of you.” It is the thread that joins these disparate, desperate people together and ultimately leads Loup into finding out her mother’s history, and of course her own.

It is directed with sensitivity, clarity and dazzling imagination by Richard Rose. This is some of his finest work. While the scope of the play is epic, the detail in Rose’s direction is like looking at fine lace. Sometimes scenes take place simultaneously but in two time periods, each clearly drawn, both serving the whole. A scene in a cemetery is suggested by characters lying on the floor in various configurations; side by side, raised on various levels, singly, or even standing up. Simple yet evocative.

Karyn McCallum’s set of brick and wood suggests an oppressive world that is right for these people, and Kimberly Purtell’s lighting is both eerie and atmospheric as well.

The cast of 11 is simply stellar. This is a cohesive ensemble, many playing multiple parts, all with distinction. As Loup, Vivien Endicott-Douglas is at first an angry, bitter, troubled kid who softens and matures as she discovers the layers of truth of her family. Initially this is not an attractive character, and Endicott-Douglas does not shy away from Loup’s harshness. As Aimée, Jan Alexandra Smith conveys to her friends and her husband the most intoxicating joy at her pregnancy. The play starts with friends touching and hugging, but goes in other directions.

It’s tempting to be overwhelmed with the complex layers that Mouawad peels back as he reveals his play. Don’t be. It’s deliberate that there is no genealogy of the families in the program. The intention is to make us watch, look, listen, hear and think about this family and its many levels. And of course we will think about our own; and who we are; where we came from; and how we fit in. Astonishing theatre does that.

Forests plays at the Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace until May 29, 2011

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lucille May 5, 2011 at 9:31 pm

This play is very, very long and very wordy and very repititious. I love the Tarragon, but they need seats that are way more comfy for a 3 hour play. The acting was fine but it could have been shortened to a comfortable length without losing anything in my opinion.


2 Marc May 8, 2011 at 3:28 am

According to Wikipedia, the fourth play in the series is titled “Ciels”. It was presented in 2009, in Avignon.

Having had the opportunity to see Scorched, Littoral (Tideline, in its original French), and even Willy Protagoras s’est enfermé dans les toilettes, I must admit that I went to see Forests with the impression that he could do no wrong. I appreciated Mouawad’s poetry, and I agree that the translation was excellent in that it managed to capture the richness of his words. However, I must admit that this production fell below my expectations.

It is always a joy to see a troupe hit that “sweet spot” – when you can tell that they nailed the scenes down so well that they can push them to the next level. The troupe that I saw play Littoral was like that: they had been rehearsing and playing for over a year, so the pacing and flow of energy was fine tuned. The four hour play just flew past, leaving the audience with a feeling that it had witnessed something truly special. And it did!

I share Lucille’s impression that at times Forests felt long – I believe that the poetry of the text fell into the trap of self-indulgence at a few key moments (the lovers conversation in the rain, the family summit at the zoo and some of the scenes between Ludivine and Sarah). This loss of pacing is what explains deleted scenes in movies. A well edited play strikes the perfect balance between times of intensity and recovery periods.

Furthermore, I feel that the actors were perhaps not given enough time or direction to push the play to the level where it needs to be. I think that this may be in part due to the fact that each one of them needed to play a great number of different roles. It is a monumental play and it requires a monumental effort to produce. In that respect, they did an admirable job of making the characters feel different from one another. Some characters burst from the stage with their intensity – the actor “nailed it”. Sophie Goulet’s work here was remarkable. However some other characters seemed underdeveloped, like cardboard props, while some others struck me as stereotypical. Loup’s character in particular would have gained from having more nuances to give more depth to the “angry teen”. Jérémie’s speeches would have been more compelling if they hadn’t started at full intensity right away. These are pitfalls that I expect a troupe of this calibre to avoid. If indeed, this is due to a lack of time, I would be very curious to see how this play will ripen over the next few weeks…

Nevertheless, a daring piece worthy of mention, full of damnation and redemption. It contains some interesting parallels with ancient Greek theatre, notably where incest is concerned. These references to ancient works help enrich the play by subconsciously weaving in their universal messages. One must remember how this play is a part of a greater work, and it does bring in its own character and its own shade of darkness to the opus.


3 Lynn Slotkin May 8, 2011 at 4:04 am

Thanks for this thoughtful post. Alas Tarragon does not have the luxury of a long rehearsal period or extended playing period. They would love to have that I’m sure, and to be able to perform a play for a year would be like heaven. But that’s no a realistic situation at Tarragon, or for many theatres in their category.

All the best,



4 Dianne May 15, 2011 at 11:58 pm

I reall y like the pley… thought the acting wonderful.
Was rather confused about the generation where the 3 women find the soldire. Who are these women the offspring of? Please help to clarify? and the Woman who was saved by her non jewish friend? who is She


5 Patricia Vicari May 21, 2011 at 4:26 am

Mouawad says he is Quebecois in his theatre and the influence of the Quebecois Gothic in this play seems very striking to me. In fact, the multiple literary influences are fascinating– Surely Grimm’s fairytales lurk somewhere here. The rich texture is very poetic and satisfying. Vivian Endicott-Douglas’ work is amazing. This young actor seems to have total control over voice and gssture though she has to hop, skip and jump over a complex and shifting emotional terrain,