Holy Krapp! Canadian Stage’s Bold New Direction

ryan hollyman, ashley wright, ngozi paul
photo by bruce zinger
In July 1971 a dozen theatre professionals met at Stanley House in Quebec’s Gaspé as guests of the Canada Council where they developed the Gaspé Manifesto, which sought to advocate for the Canadian playwright. It seems difficult to believe in contemporary Toronto, with Tarragon, Factory and Theatre Passe Muraille offering seasons’ worth of entirely Canadian work each year, and countless festivals devoted to fostering and developing new plays by local playwrights, that forty years ago our playwrights felt unsupported and besieged by the torrent of work from the United States, The United Kingdom and elsewhere abroad that was continually being churned out of the majority of Canada’s theatre institutions. I feel fortunate to be able to say, with some confidence, that I think that, especially within the theatre community, and thankfully largely within the majority of the theatregoing public, Toronto is in a position where Canadian theatre is a familiar, vital and vibrant aspect of our lives.
Canadian Stage has a long history of being a proponent for the Canadian playwright, and now its Artistic Director, Matthew Jocelyn, is taking a dramatic new leap, in establishing the company as being not only a home for the plays of this country, but for “trans-disciplinary theatre that pushes the boundaries of convention and reflects a resolutely 21st Century aesthetic.” Jocelyn’s production of contemporary German playwright Tankred Dorst’s Fernando Krapp Wrote Me this Letter, now playing until October 16th, 2010 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, is a bold departure for the theatre and captures this new mandate impeccably, reminding us, perhaps, that the theatrical conventions and styles that we have become accustomed to seeing in Toronto only represent a fraction of those within the realm of possibility for the theatre.
Fernando Krapp Wrote Me this Letter: An Attempt at the Truth, which premiered in Vienna in 1992 and is derived from a 1920 novella by Spanish Basque writer Miguel de Unamuno entitled Nothing Less Than a Man, is written in a style that I am not entirely acquainted with; it is certainly not realism, although there are definite shades of it present, and the story, of Julia who becomes embroiled in a triangle between her domineering millionaire husband and the gentle wooing of a neighbouring poet, unfolds in a conventionally narrative way. There are shades of Absurdism in the text and also elements of fable, as the male characters especially embody their ideals in a way that radically shapes their personalities. There is a directness to the dialogue, especially for Fernando Krapp, that suggests that his words flow directly out of his mouth, entirely uncensored by his mind or his heart. The poet, the Count, reveals unbridled the intensity of every feeling he has. Julia is being continually pulled in both directions, encouraged to both speak and feel freely, depending on the company she is keeping. She also must contend with her own inner feistiness, which she represses after her marriage, the oppressive tiny box Fernando Krapp has placed her in under the guise of absolute freedom, and her dreams, which may provide her with brief respite, but also threaten to undermine her perception of reality.
I found my experience with the way this story is written to be riveting and emotionally alienating simultaneously. Matthew Jocelyn’s translation of the play gives it a European formalism which I think suits the style of the piece, but certainly holds these characters aloft from us in the audience. Dorst not only confronts a familiar scenario in a creative way, but he also does not give his own fable any one obvious moral. The ending of the play is unexpected, and requires Fernando Krapp to make an uncharacteristic, and seemingly unmotivated, transformation, while Julia’s choices remain just as perplexing. It can be excruciatingly frustrating for audience members to be left with a resolution that is not dramatically satisfying, but it also reflects the absurdist thought that efforts of humanity to find meaning will ultimately fail because no such “meaning” exists. It is then especially interesting that the subtitle of the play is “An Attempt at the Truth” because in this play the truth could not be more subjective and, as Soren Kierkegaard, Existentialist Philosopher, argues “humanity has lost meaning because the accepted criterion of reality and truth is ambiguous and subjective thought.” What is the role of a fable in a world devoid of meaning?
For the actors, the style of this play is difficult. Walter Borden gives a strong performance as a character that could be cut entirely from the play with only a slight revision. Ngozi Paul is captivating as Julia, and she does evoke empathy and care from her audience, although her performance tends to yoyo between being naturalistic and over-dramatic, which at times can seem a bit forced. Yet often she is heartbreaking and there is one scene where she begins to cackle manically that is powerfully mesmerizing. Ryan Hollyman’s character, the poet Count, provides the play with much of its comedy, and it is fascinating to see how Dorst and Jocelyn use humour to inform the scenes with the most dramatic tension, accentuating, perhaps, the absurdity of the situations upon which the fates of human are ultimately hinged. Hollyman is comedic gold as the Count, relishing in some superb moments of physicality and truly capturing the passion, the fear, the confusion and the weakness of his character, which makes him both endearing and exasperating. Ashley Wright is a formidable Fernando Krapp. He has entirely mastered this style of performance and is able to portray a character with extravagantly inhuman faith in his own perfection with ease and sincerity. Krapp is an unlikeable character, but Wright makes him deliciously so and always entirely fascinating to watch. This play is definitive proof of Ashley Wright’s dramatic genius.    
I found that overall Jocelyn’s strong directorial choices always seemed consistent with the style of the play and that, along with Astrid Janson’s revolve set, there was a great sense of constant motion and inevitable cycles and sometimes, of the Count and Julia being stuck on a nightmarish merry-go-round. I was caught off guard by Jocelyn’s choice of ending for the play, which seemed to thrust Fernando and Julia into a contemporary Grade eight dance. It was not so much that the ending lacked a cohesive meaning or moral, but I thought that these characters and their tumultuous journey deserved a more powerful parting image.
Fernando Krapp Wrote Me this Letter is unlike anything Canadian Stage audiences have seen at the theatre in recent years and because its style is a departure from the way that Canadian, British and American plays are traditionally staged and structured, I think that audiences will be strongly divided in their opinions of this piece, and I think that that is really exciting. I am certain there will be those who herald this production as exactly what “theatre should be” and those who leave confused and vehemently angry. Yet, ultimately, I am looking forward to the opportunity to experience new ways of creating theatre and I hope that as Matthew Jocelyn presents more and more of this style of theatre and others, that my mind will expand with a greater understanding and knowledge of these traditions and how each one engages with the head and the heart.

Canadian Stage’s production of Fernando Krapp Wrote Me this Letter plays at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front Street West) until October 16th, 2010. For more information or to book your tickets please call 416.368.3110 or visit http://www.canadianstage.com/.

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