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Friday, January 27, 2012

Review: (Toronto) Cruel and Tender

Arsinée Khanjian in Cruel and Tender. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

Atom Egoyan's return to the stage
Cruel and Tender was highly anticipated
by Beat Rice
Last night, the much anticipated production of Cruel and Tender written by Martin Crimp and directed by Atom Egoyan opened to a full, attentive house. The play is a modern drama based on Sophocles tragedy of Trachiniae, where Deianeira, wife of Heracles, waits at home for her husband who is at war. In Crimp’s version Amelia waits for her husband who is a General in a war zone in Africa. She finds out about his atrocities overseas and struggles to come to terms with his motives for destruction. International conflict finds its disturbing way home and into the relationships of the people living in the stark white house. 
I felt like very much of an outsider while watching Amelia fall apart.

The cast did a decent job bringing Crimp’s words to life. It is a very heavy and dark play that could have dropped if the energy and tension faltered, but the strong direction and execution by the actors made for an engaging performance. Crimp’s writing of the play mirrors the mood of the Greek tragedy it was based on. Because of its tragic story and almost overwhelming themes of war and terror, it was hard for me to hold onto. I felt like very much of an outsider while watching Amelia fall apart. Amelia is played by Arsinee Khanjian, who is great at playing the different sides of Amelia, but never reaches a powerful enough point to justify her action later in the play. 

I was left more confused than anything.

Jeff Lillico does good work playing her estranged son with attitude and bitterness. In the play he goes on a trip to Africa to visit his father but it is not believable. In fact the whole idea of time passing was hard to understand and believe. Perhaps the show needed an intermission or a special transition to indicate the passage of time. Or perhaps we were supposed to feel like everything happens so fast. Either way, I was left more confused than anything. The structure of the play is also interesting, especially who Crimp chooses to have onstage when they have a non-active role in the scene.  It is a challenging play and I applaud the actors for keeping it together.
The production excelled visually. Debra Hanson’s set is a simple but impressive stark white household interior. It contains only straight lines and angles. There is nothing comfortable or warm about the home, which parallels the content of the play. Any colour entering the stage comes with a sense of staining or dirtying the space. Before the General comes on stage we hear of his crimes and already despise him. When the general, played by Daniel Kash, finally enters the stage, he is wearing a grotesque shade of mustard yellow, which stood out on the white set, so much that I actually felt sick. 
I enjoyed parts of the play, but as a whole, it did not quite come together. Perhaps it was just too much family drama, war, terror, and well, cruelty for me to handle in one sitting.

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