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Family dysfunction does not the Bard make

0 out of 4 stars


Created by Maggie Huculak, Hamish McEwan, Duncan Ollerenshaw, Rick Roberts, Richard Rose and Maria Vacratsis

Directed by Richard Rose

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Starring Maggie Huculak, Hamish McEwan, Duncan Ollerenshaw and Maria Vacratsis

At Canadian Stage Berkeley Street


As Toronto theatre director Richard Rose has pointed out, King Lear could be a tale from our own times: grasping middle-aged children battle for their inheritance while bickering about who will care for their increasingly senile parent. Yet, familiar is the last word you'd apply to Hysterica, the new, contemporary drama inspired by the Shakespearean story and the latest chapter in a continuing investigation of Lear by Rose and his Necessary Angel Theatre Co.

Hysterica is a deeply stylish and often clever show full of exaggerated acting and arch weirdness. Its staging highly wrought but its story under-developed, it's often frustrating, but never mundane.

The play opens on an all-white set, empty except for a long table and plain chairs where a wealthy family is gathered for a meeting. The iron-willed and domineering Greek matriarch Mama Leda (Maria Vacratsis) is preparing to divide the family business between her two sons, scions of the Canadian establishment. The sociopathic playboy Edward (Hamish McEwan) will get 45 per cent, as will his younger brother Iain (Duncan Ollerenshaw), a tortured artist dominated by his neurotic wife Gwen (Maggie Huculak). Leda will keep 10 per cent.

When she then asks for declarations of love, Edward hypocritically complies but the unhappy Iain has nothing to say. So, Edward gets the key to the safety-deposit box that contains a power of attorney: He has been chosen as the one who will care for his mother should age overtake her.

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Nonetheless, when she needs a place to stay during home renovations, she turns to Iain, driving daughter-in-law Gwen to new heights of bitchiness with rude demands and old-country superstitions. After a fight, Leda leaves them, only to find that Edward is less than ready to take her in. And now, her mind is starting to go. The brothers, predictably, wind up arguing over whether she should be institutionalized.

If the original Lear is notorious for its vicious characters, the sadistic sisters and their conniving consorts, it is also a play where evil is balanced with good: The old man's tragedy is that he can't distinguish between the two.

Hysterica, on the other hand, has eliminated redeeming characters like the unjustly persecuted Edgar and his blinded father Gloucester, and left an audience with a picture of unmitigated selfishness and neurosis that makes watching hard.

Ollerenshaw's Iain conflates the gentle and honest Cordelia with her awful sisters, creating a figure so nervous and ineffectual in his opposition to his his family's greed that his withdrawal becomes itself a kind of complicity.

And if the character does not provide the necessary counterweight nor does the actor, offering only overstated nervousness and desperation sustained on the same note for much of the two-act play. Similarly, Huculak's nutty Gwen, although much more amusing to watch, is also too exaggerated. She creates a series of conversations with an unseen therapist that are deliciously nasty vignettes, but do little to advance a narrative in need of more direct help.

McEwan is more successful in integrating his Edward into the show, maintaining a subtler balance of expressionism and naturalism to create a vicious little Upper Canadian preppy. The plausibility collapses, however, in the final moments of the play when Edward, with little warning, goes mad and inexplicably dies.

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Leda's madness is much more powerful. Vacratisis successfully builds an outrageous character of massive ego and lacquered European manners without reducing the woman to a joke, and then takes her toward a genuinely frightening collapse. Her final scenes of girlhood memories and quiet babbling are the only moments in this play that achieve poignancy.

And if its overblown action were to end decisively, that poignancy, counter-balanced with the theatrical stylishness Rose has imposed, would make this a project one could at least admire -- albeit from some emotional distance. But wanting the firm story line that a single writer might have provided, the show fizzles in its final moments, as though the members of the collective had exhausted their clever contributions and were now stuck for an ending.

Until Jan. 29 at Canadian Stage, Berkeley Street. (416)368-3110

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