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A disappointing performance mars a visually striking Cruel and Tender

2 out of 4 stars

Another week, another Greek legend about a neglected wife waiting for her husband to return from military adventures abroad.

Earlier this month, Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, which retells the Odyssey from loyal and clever Penelope's perspective, had a fine Toronto debut.

Now, as a kind of companion piece, British playwright Martin Crimp's Cruel and Tender, a 2004 play that transposes Sophocles's Women of Trachis onto the war on terror, arrives at Canadian Stage.

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On a stark, hospital-white set that resembles an airport hangar, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Atom Egoyan directs the story of Amelia (Arsinée Khanjian), who keeps the home fires burning while her husband, The General (Daniel Kash), wages an anti-terrorist campaign in Africa.

Egoyan's return to working in Toronto theatre is a cause for celebration; with only a few false steps involving focus, he has put together a visually striking piece that wouldn't be out of place on any European festival stage. His memorable images include a hand crushing a wine glass and then dripping with blood, while his use of video projections are, unsurprisingly, virtuosic, showing us agony in disconcerting close-up.

But alas, both the Crimp play he's chosen to direct and Khanjian's central performance in it are puzzling and unsatisfying.

Cruel and Tender's tragedy is triggered by the arrival of an unusual delivery in advance of The General – a beautiful African orphan named Laela (Abena Malika) and her little brother.

Jonathan, a government minister who accompanies these two to Amelia's compound, tells her that her husband discovered the two cowering in a blood-and-bone-filled drain and asked him to bring them to his house "to remind us – to remind each one of us – of our common – I hope – humanity."

A consummate spin doctor who reworks each sentence as he speaks it for maximum rhetorical effect, Jonathan is played, with relish, by Nigel Shawn Williams, who once played a more reluctant war apologist in Stuff Happens.

Jonathan's version of events, naturally, turns out to be untrue: The General has, in fact, pulverized an entire African village in order to take Laela as a lover. In response to this disturbing revelation, Amelia hatches a chemical plan to win back her husband's affection that backfires, badly.

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In Sophocles's play, it is Deianeira who awaits the hero Heracles, off completing his famous 12 labours. One of Heracles's tasks was the slaying of the Hydra, which grew two heads every time one was hacked off. It's easy to see how this might function well as a metaphor for the war on terror.

But, with the exception of a few stray resonances, Crimp's concerns about contemporary wars (and sexual politics) don't really match up with the tale he has lifted from antiquity. The idea that a military campaign might be waged to satisfy a general's lust for a single woman seems entirely incongruous outside of Greek legend.

In the end, I wasn't sure what the hyperbolic Cruel and Tender says about the war on terror other than that Crimp vehemently disagrees with it – and that it was not fought for the reasons stated by its leaders.

Following Sophocles's original structure, Amelia holds centre stage for the majority of the play – then disappears just before the arrival of The General. The chorus she commiserates with has been transformed into a maid, a physiotherapist and a beautician, played with great chemistry by Brenda Robins, Cara Ricketts, and Sarah Wilson. Their bizarre interactions – including frequent attempts to calm Amelia with off-key karaoke – provoke unsettling, nervous laughter.

At the centre of Egoyan's production, Khanjian's performance is fine physically – indeed, she seems the very picture of a tragic Greek heroine, her gestures and movement large, but still rooted in reality.

Vocally, however, she is underpowered – her weak projection, more than her accent, often making it difficult to follow what she's saying. In her attempts to get Crimp's dense dialogue all the way to the back of the cavernous Bluma Appel Theatre, she seems to sacrifice its psychological grounding. She comes across about as genuine as a Real Housewife of Ancient Greece – and while her character is indeed theatrical and narcissistic, at some point believable emotion needs to kick in.

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Egoyan gets excellent performances from those around her, however – particularly Jeff Lillico, who, as her son James, exhibits a frighteningly violent petulance, and Malika's proud Laela, who learns English by reading sex advice in Cosmopolitan.

But the scorching story at the heart of Women of Trachis – of a woman who so loves a man that she accidentally kills him – is fundamentally lost in Crimp's version and Khanjian's performance.

Cruel and Tender

  • Written by Martin Crimp
  • Directed by Atom Egoyan
  • Starring Arsinée Khanjian
  • At the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto

Cruel and Tender runs until Feb. 18.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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