I, Claudia Reflects Canadian Triumph

It seems auspicious that as I am crusading for Canadian theatre (especially indigenous Canadian Theatre) to be recognized as the triumph that it is, today I found myself in the Michael Young Theatre in the audience for Kristen Thomson’s play I, Claudia. This play is the very essence of my argument reconfigured into a stunning, beautiful, awing, moving piece of theatre. It was even more gratifying to me because the theatre was filled with teenaged students, many of whom had not been to the Young Centre before, and some of whom did not raise their hands when asked, “How many of you have attended live theatre before?” Prior to the show Soulpepper actor Derek Boyes told the young audience that they were the “future of Canadian theatre” and I have found that a young person’s early exposures to plays becomes formative in determining whether they will grow up to be a person inclined towards life on the stage, a patron of the theatre or someone apathetic or alienated altogether. It was invigorating to see how captivated and genuinely impressed this theatre full of teenagers was with I, Claudia. What an introduction to the Canadian Theatre, indeed!
Thomson’s play was developed over two years using a series of masks that are used in character development at the National Theatre School of Canada. From these masks emerged four distinct characters and a truly moving story about the power of perception and reflection and how our self-identity is shaped and determined by others. The central character is Claudia, a girl of twelve and three quarters who is struggling to steady her world and her place within it after the divorce of her parents. She seeks solace in the boiler room of her school, where she is watched over (from a distance) by the school’s custodian. She assumes that this man cannot speak English, but as Thomson brings him to life, the audience learns that he is quite proficient in English and, surprisingly, he was once the Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Bulgonia. Claudia does not realize that her story is connected with that of this janitor, and it is he who gives her red curtains, a top hat and the ability to perform her own story.
Claudia’s voice is remarkably strong. Her speech patterns are at once unique and familiar as they inhabit perfectly the space between the vocals of a child and that of an adult. To adults, I think, she seems precocious, and yet it is clear from the way she speaks, her judgments and perceptions of the world around her, and the way she wears her school uniform that she is not especially popular in her class. Claudia longs to connect and yet remains determined to stand behind the values her parents have instilled within her sharp, sensitive mind. Thomson’s mask gives Claudia a wide-eyed, earnest specificity while also alluding to the universal. Claudia is at once familiar as that awkward, lone, child we once knew in school and simultaneously she is all of us. Claudia is that moment when our lives became complicated and we realized that our parents weren’t perfect. Claudia is on the brink of the rest of her life crying out for guidance and affirmation.
Thomson brings dazzling talent to these four characters. Their voices, intonations and physicality are crisp, precise and utterly captivating. Chris Abraham has directed the piece with a beautiful sense of metatheatrical fluidity where Thomson is able to change costumes and masks without disrupting the rhythm of the piece. The use of music is especially effective in propelling the audience between worlds and various states of mind. It’s inspiring to see the freedom that emerges from the combination of beautiful writing and fantastic acting. The audience comes along for the ride!
I found Thomson’s most heartbreaking character to be of Claudia’s hated stepmother, Leslie. Claudia speaks fluently to her audience about the secrets and the pain that has been inflicted on her life, and although she is reluctant to share her emotions with her parents, in the end she demands to be seen and heard. Leslie is a grown woman who has buried her true self beneath a mask and who is so filled with self-loathing that she lashes out at everyone else. The tragedy is that Claudia may not look into the janitor’s figurative basket of her own tears and accept the reflection of the survivor that stares back at her, but that she may instead reject and abhor it and grow up to be her stepmother.
The power in this piece stems from the fact that although each of our stories are different, and none of us will mirror the experience of any of these four characters exactly, none of us emerge from life unscathed. We each cry our own basket worth of tears, and we each are confronted with the daily task of accepting or rejecting the person we have grown to become. At times life is “just so real” and for every dead fish, comes something else absolutely highlarious.
Since debuting at the Tarragon Theatre in April 2001, I, Claudia has been presented at the Harbourfront Centre and toured to the Belfry Theatre (Vancouver), Magnetic North (Edmonton) and Hungary. It was also adapted into a film, for which Thomson won a Gemini Award, an ACTRA award and two Canadian Comedy Awards. This play is truly a Canadian gem, and it is one that should be heralded as being proof that Canadians can and do compete as world-class artists on the world stage. Like Claudia, we can’t remain dependent on affirmation from a parent or an imagined rainbow sister, but need to look in the mirror and smile at our own reflection and feel secure. I, Claudia plays at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill Street Building 49) until May 23rd. 2009. You can get your tickets by visiting the website or calling 416 866-8666.

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