Theaturtle & Shakespeare in Action/Alphonse, written by Wajdi Mouawad, translated by Shelley Tepperman, directed by Alon Nashman, Dufferin Grove Park, Aug. 27 to Aug. 30. Tickets available here.
An actor spoke words and an audience listened. The live theatre experience was back. Yes, it was in a park, and yes, we were socially distanced, and yes, we all wore masks, but the actor was there in front of us and not on a screen. The ancient art of theatre as direct communication had been restored.
Toronto’s first live performance since the COVID-19 lockdown featured Alphonse (1996) by distinguished Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad. Alphonse was his first published play, but even then, his writing contained the seeds of greatness that Mouawad would later show in Scorched (2009) and Birds of a Kind (2019), for example. The one-man show is rich in imagination, plot and complicated themes, and bringing to life its 27 characters requires an actor of immense talent.
In Dufferin Grove Park last night, the gifted Kaleb Alexander, who should have been in the throes of his first season at Stratford, was the conduit for Mouawad’s intense and intricate wordplay. The performance was also a rite of passage. Director Alon Nashman has been associated with Alphonse from the very beginning, and has performed the play literally all over the world. In fact, he and Alexander are sharing the role this time, (there are two shows a day), but as Nashman stated in several interviews, it was time to pass the torch to another actor, and he personally selected Alexander for this joint performance.
The premise of the play is about childhood imagination and dreams, and how do we maintain that spirit of creativity as we grow up, given the age-old struggle between fantasy and the demands of reason. There are two parallel story lines revolving around the young boy Alphonse who is always making up stories. The play begins with Alphonse not coming home from school one day, setting off a frantic search for him. Here we meet his family, teachers, schoolmates, neighbours and the police inspector Victor. On the other track, we see the missing Alphonse’s fertile imagination at work as he conjures up the fantastical adventures of his special friend Pierre-Paul-René and this hero’s encounters with people both good and evil.
The actor’s journey through this myriad of characters requires instantaneous transformation, and Alexander’s performance is nothing short of brilliant. He gives us old, young, man, and woman with seamless transitions, changing his voice at will. He is also a very good mover and his portrayals are marked by delightful physicality. Each character is wonderfully distinct, but Alexander never lets us lose sight of the main theme which binds the whole together — namely, Alphonse’s immense imagination set against the reality of life.
Sound guru Verne Good has provided Alexander with an excellent cordless microphone so the audience does not miss a word. At the same time, the actor’s voice is never distorted or hollow. Goode has also played with the sound for some of the characters to colour the portrayal, like the big, scary voice for the villain. Dufferin Grove Park happens to have whimsical cob structures that are straight out of a fairy tale, which designer Lindsay Ann Black has incorporated into the set, and which Nashman has used in his direction. (Cob is a kind of stucco made from a mixture of sand, clay and straw.) Being the lithe mover that he is, Alexander is all over the cob structures during the performance.
As for the mechanics, the seating pods for the audience are delineated by little red flags because the surface is sand and not grass, so they could not paint circles. Regardless, we were having a live theatrical experience, and that is what really mattered.