by Lynn on March 31, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Now playing live and in person at the Grand Theatre, London, Ont. produced by Canadian Stage in co-production with Vita Brevis, National Arts Centre, Neptune Theatre and the Grand Theatre, where it plays until April 2, 2023.

Adaptors for the stage: Alisa Palmer and Hannah Moscovitch

Based on the novel by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Co-creator and writer, Hannah Moscovitch

Music supervision, orchestration and arrangements, Sean Mayes

Choreographer, Natasha Powell

Set by Camellia Koo

Costumes by Judith Bowden

Lighting by Leigh Ann Vardy

Sound by Brian Kenny

Cast: Tim Campbell

Janelle Cooper

Diane Flacks

Eva Foote

Deborah Hay

Samantha Hill

Drew Moore

Tony Ofori

Cara Rebecca

Maryem Tollar

Amaka Umeh

Dakota Jamal Wellman

Jenny L. Wright

Antoine Yared

Kim Chisholm

Naomi Ngebulana

Musicians: Anna Atkinson

Spencer Murray

Doublas Price

Maryem Tollar

A herculean effort in every way to bring it to the stage. Whether the stage is the best place for this epic is another matter.

Note: Ahhhhh procrastination. This production has played Toronto (where I saw both parts in one day), Halifax, Ottawa, and is now on in London, Ont. on its last leg of this multi-city run.  And for whatever reason I am only writing about it now—as a comment rather than a ‘review.’

Content AdvisoryThis production contains themes and scenes of incest, physical and sexual abuse and violence, partial nudity, graphic and sexual content, strong language, smoke and haze, and e-cigarettes. Content may be triggering for some.

Writer Ann-Marie MacDonald’s huge tome (566 pages) of “Fall On Your Knees” was years in the making to adapt if for the stage and then put that adaptation on the stage. Ann-Marie MacDonald has said that she always envisioned her book as also having a life on stage. While the book is huge, so is the adaptation. It necessitated it be presented in two separate parts: Part I Family Tree, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, early 1900s to 1960s. Part II, The Diary Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and New York City, New York. 1920s to 1967. Each part was three hours long with intermissions.   

I’m totally impressed with the determination and tenacity of those involved to get the huge stage-play up and running. Alisa Palmer and Hannah Moscovitch factor heavily. They are listed as adaptors for the stage. Hannah Moscovitch is listed as Co-creator and writer.  Alisa Palmer directed it and created a production company to co-produce it. I marvel that four theatres signed on to produce it in rolling productions: Neptune Theatre (Halifax), Canadian Stage (Toronto), National Arts Centre (Ottawa) and the Grand Theatre (London) where it will conclude on April 2, 2023.

The play covers several generations and decades of the Piper family. James Piper (Tim Campbell) is a piano tuner tuning the piano of the Mahmoud family. He meets Materia Mahmoud (Cara Rebecca). He is smitten and so is she. They want to marry but her family does not give consent. James is of Celtic descent and Materia is Lebanese. The fact that James is 19 and Materia is 12 does not raise alarm bells. They elope. Her father disowns her. She is soon pregnant and is desperate she have a son, to please her angry father, and also for her husband. The child is a girl they name Kathleen (Samantha Hill who is beguiling). Materia cannot accept or bond with her. But James can and does bond with the child. Kathleen is followed by three more daughters (and here lies one of the family’s many secrets): Mercedes (Jenny L. Wright—righteous and pure), Frances (Deborah Hay—fearless and compelling) and Lily (Eva Foote—a survivor).

Music and sound factor heavily in the production—since James is a piano tuner and Kathleen has a talent for singing. James pushes her to develop that talent. Kudos to Sean Mayes for his music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements.

Set designer, Camellia Koo has created an intriguing set that focuses on the motif of the piano. Thick wires (evocative of piano wires) are held taut on a slant at the back of the stage. Several set pieces and props are also arresting. There is a semi-circle of chairs across the back of the stage. Characters sit on them when they are not in a scene. Two chairs are suspended in air. We realize they represent characters who have died. Over the course of the play more and more chairs will be suspended. Between the drums/props/and other things used to make music, sound, and the set, one is always having one’s attention pulled from the story.

The cast is very strong: Tim Campbell as James Piper is both charming and forbidding. Diane Flacks in various roles is detailed, quietly arresting and always deep into the role. Deborah Hay is nuanced and fearless as Frances who appears wayward but is more subtle than that. Amaka Umeh plays Rose, a character with secrets and grace. As I said, the cast is very strong.

As the director, Alisa Palmer certainly has a vision of the huge sweep of the book. She is not afraid of taking things slowly to unveil the complex story.

But I do have concerns. I think that the theatrical form is an issue. I think the book would have been better served as a limited television series or film that deals clearly with the complexity.

It’s obvious that as the life partner of Ann-Marie MacDonald, Alisa Palmer would be very protective of both the book of “Fall On Your Knees” and the resultant play, hence her close involvement with the project: co-producing-directing-co-adapting for the stage and co-creator.

I think that closeness is a problem. I wonder what kind of adaptation Hannah Moscovitch would write on her own. Information seems missing in this version, the most serious of which is this: Kathleen is a young woman studying opera in New York City. James receives a letter from New York City that was not sent by Kathleen. When he reads it he says to Materia, in a panic, that he must go to New York and he will be back in a week. The next scene is of Kathleen back home, writhing in the pains of childbirth. How long elapsed between those two scenes—between James getting the letter, rushing to New York and Kathleen brought home and giving birth? We aren’t told. It’s suggested she was pregnant in New York. But that’s not really true. This lack of clarity seems a glitch in the story-telling, and it’s one of many glitches. And there is redemption for a character at the end, that is not earned. A big concern.

Sometimes the pace is so slow as to seem reverential. I think that has to be addressed. Dare one say it—but with respect—Hannah Moscovitch should have written the adaptation herself, and another person, besides Alisa Palmer, should have directed it. I applaud the effort to bring it to the stage, but still…..I have those concerns.

Produced by Canadian Stage in co-production with Vita Brevis, National Arts Centre, Neptune Theatre and the Grand Theatre.

Plays until April 2, 2023.

Running time: Each part is 3 hours long.

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