Review: Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero: a performance

Review: Necessary Angel in association with The Film Farm presents
Divisadero: a performance
Text by Michael Ondaatje
Directed by Daniel Brooks
Songs written and performed by Justin Rutledge
Featuring Liane Balaban, Maggie Huculak, Tom McCamus, Amy Rutherford and Justin Rutledge

Divisadero: a performance should be taken at its word. This is a literary work in performance mode, fat with words and a love of language and lit up by a great sense of storytelling that emerges from the voices of the performers.  The staging is minimalist, with a kind of false curtain at the back for entrances and exits, a couple of peripheral seating areas sketched out at either side of the stage, and four microphones that take up the foreground. There are bits of action here and there, but the majority of the piece unfolds at those four mics and in the tumultuous family history that unravels in the flow of words.

I haven't read the eponymous book (not all of it, not yet) but it wasn't necessary to follow the storyline or get caught up in its twists and turns. It begins with Anna and Claire, young women brought up together by Anna's taciturn father on a farm, made a threesome when the family takes in Cooper, or Coop, the slightly older boy from the neighbouring farm after he's orphaned in violent circumstances. We hear the voices of Anna (Maggie Huculak) - as a grown up with the insight of someone who became a writer - and Claire (Liane Balaban) in real time, as the adolescent girl, and observe as the sexual tensions ramp up, eventuallly building to an unexpected explosion that sends the three young lives careening in different directions.

The story continues in a fragmented kind of form, with Coop at the centre, more often talked about than speaking for himself. He remains an only partly-known object of longing and desire, sometimes singing, sometimes playing the guitar in the background, where we delve much more deeply into Anna and even Claire. I'd be interested how the novel treats these shifts in point of view and depth of characterization. While I wouldn't call any of the performances weak per se, the story was at its most visceral and alive in the characters of druggy Bridget (Amy Rutherford) as Coop's Achilles heel, and in Tom McCamus, who's a born storyteller with a larger than life presence as the gambler Mancini. He held the audience in the palm of his hand with his yarn about Coop and the great con he pulls in Vegas.

The piece tackles themes of love and desire, loss and separation, and the lifetime of ripples that flow from a single violent episode. The random violence of the story comes across as somewhat removed, as it would in a talky piece like this, related from the memory of the characters and not from a direct point of view; one of the origins of the word "Divisadero" comes from the Spanish Divisar, meaning "to gaze from a distance", or "a point from which you can look far into the distance" - the writer's point of view. The one real quibble I'd have is with the reiteration of certain ideas and scenes retold in the story, a literary device that has a certain effect on the page that I don't think translates as well to the stage, but it's not a constant element and didn't detract in my enjoyment of the piece. I was engrossed in the story right up to its melancholy conclusion.

Just a note - please don't be like the boorish gentleman to my left, who insisted on yakking throughout the final monologue. Most of us really do want to hear every word.

Images by Cylla von Tiedemann:
• L-R: Justin Rutledge (as Coop),  Amy Rutherford (as Bridget), Maggie Huculak (as Anna), & Tom McCamus (as Gil)
• L-R: Liane Balaban (as Claire), Justin Rutledge (as Coop) and Maggie Huculak (as Anna)
• L-R: Justin Rutledge as Coop and Amy Rutherford as Bridget• L-R: Tom McCamus as Mancini 

Performances continue to February 20, 2011 at Theatre Passe Muraille's Mainspace, 16 Ryerson Avenue
Tuesday-Saturday 8pm, Sunday 2pm
Tickets: Tuesday - Thursday $25, Fridays  $30, Saturdays $35, Sunday Matinee PWYC
To Purchase Tickets Please Call: Theatre Passe Muraille Arts Box Office: 416-504-7529
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