by Lynn on March 11, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

6 Essential Questions

At Factory Theatre, Toronto. Written by Priscila Uppal. Directed by Leah Cherniak. Designed by Victoria Wallace. Lighting by Arun Srinivasan. Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne. Choreography by Terril Maguire. Starring: Maggie Huculak, Mina James, Elizabeth Saunders and Richard Zeppieri.

Plays at Factory Theatre until March 30.

Priscila Uppal’s life story is the stuff of drama and memoirs. In fact Uppal, poet, novelist and YorkUniversity professor, adapted her play 6 Essential Questions from her memoir: “Projections Encounters with My Runaway Mother.” In the memoir her father was left a paraplegic when he drank contaminated water, when she was two. When she was seven her Mother left the family, cleaned out the bank accounts and went to Brazil. Uppal had no contact with her for 20 years. Then Uppal found her and made contact. She went to Brazil and for 10 days found out her Mother was hideous.

While Uppal’s life story is the stuff of drama, her actual adaptation of her memoir into play form is sorely lacking in drama, characterization, focus, shape, believable dialogue and cohesion.

For some reason Uppal changed the events in the actual memoir when she adapted them to play form. For some reason Uppal’s main character in the play is named Renata.  Renata’s father had a swimming accident that resulted in many broken bones that left him a paraplegic. A few years later Renata’s Mother left the family. For the next twenty years Renata was raised by her father. She put herself through medical school and became a doctor. At one point Renata hears a woman’s voice in her purse; follows the message to Brazil where she meets her Mother, her grandmother and her uncle, known as Doctor Garbage.

Her Mother gives her a travelogue of Brazil in photos, videos and commentary, without moving from the spot. For the 10 days that Renata is in Brazil her mother doesn’t ask her a thing about herself. Instead she tells her daughter all the things that she (the Mother) loves about herself. Renata’s Mother is narcissistic, self-absorbed, extraverted, critical of Renata, when she notices her at all and negative to most people, especially her own mother.

Renata’s grandmother is mournful, fatalistic, kind in her way, and resigned to her daughter’s ways. The uncle, Doctor Garbage is a mystery. I have no idea what he is aside from snide, obtuse in his comments and their meaning and some kind of chronicler of the time. He doesn’t seem to like Renata.

The dialogue is esoteric without seeming like speech that people would ordinarily use. That is a mystery to me too. At times it seems more like recited poetry. This does little to flesh out characters who seem more like sketches than full bodied characters. The setting (Victoria Wallace designs) is a landfill/dump. Again, I have to wonder why. Is that a metaphor too—for Renata’s Mother’s life? Sorry, the point escapes me. We find out little of why Renata’s Mother left because she doesn’t really say. Conversations that are probing are rare in 6 Essential Questions. Any revelations of facts about the other characters are few and far between.

Director Leah Cherniak has little to work with in the play and keeps moving the cast around perhaps as a change-up from listening to dull dialogue that does little to lift the play.

And of course the people who take the heat when a play does not do well, when characters are not well drawn or defined, are the actors who have to lift the leaden play. They must go out every night, do the play and smile cheerfully at the bow.

As Renata, Mina James is both deferential to her Mother as well as direct. As the Grandmother, Maggie Huculak plays a depressive woman ready to die and rather anxious that it be soon. As Doctor Garbage, Richard Zippieri is lively and smarmy. I just have no idea who this character is other than Renata’s uncle, and why he’s in the play in the first place.

In the impossible part of Renata’s self-absorbed Mother, Elizabeth Saunders is fearless. There is nothing endearing about this character and Saunders does not fall into the trap of sentimentalizing her. Saunders is flamboyant in a clingy orange-red dress. She sashays around that dump without hesitation, going up and down levels like a sure-footed person who is familiar with the place. She has a particular grace. But nothing will make the Mother charming and Saunders doesn’t try. The Mother is condescending; joyful in her own self-love; and almost ignorant that there is anyone else in the world worth her time besides herself. She treats those around her like an annoyance. Saunders is compelling in her absolute determined way she is playing the Mother. Hideous character. Eye-popping performance.

6 Essential Questions needs to be rewritten, focused, re configured and rethought. I have just one essential question. Why was the play done in the first place?

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