Kyra Harper (top) and Michelle Polak look at death from a child’s point of view.
PACAMAMBO by Wajdi Mouawad, translated by Shelley Tepperman, directed by Ken Gass, with Kyra Harper, Amy Keating, Michelle Polak and Karen Robinson. Presented by Canadian Rep at the Citadel (304 Parliament). Previews Saturday and Sunday (January 18 and 19) at 8 pm, opens Tuesday (January 21) and runs to February 2, Wednesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees January 26, February 1 and 2 at 2:30 pm. $24-$36, Sunday matinee pwyc, previews $15. 416-504-7529.
This is the first time I've interviewed a talking dog and a decomposing grandmother.
They both make sense in the magical world of Wajdi Mouawad's Pacamambo, which launches former Factory Theatre artistic director Ken Gass's Canadian Rep Theatre. It's the story of Julie, who takes her dog, Growl, and her just-deceased grandmother, Marie-Marie, to a basement locker. The 11-year-old demands that Death come to explain why her beloved relative has been taken from her.
Three weeks later, a psychiatrist questions the girl about her actions and hears a strange tale that looks at life and death from a child's point of view.
"The play is the way Mouawad explains a complex idea to young people," explains Michelle Polak, who plays Growl. "It's aimed at audiences nine to 99 and follows Julie's journey as she discovers her own version of the truth. At times she's childlike, at others she's on the cusp of a rite of passage.
"As a mother, I appreciate how he captures the world of wonder and hope that any child inhabits. We're all born with those qualities, but as we grow older, it's challenging to hold on to them."
"Pacamambo" is a place of illumination, a land in the sky where everyone will finally meet and find equality and happiness. But the concept isn't something the psychiatrist can understand.
"Instead, it's the grandmother who understands the truth," says Kyra Harper, who plays the part. "But though she knows she will die, it happens too soon for her. Marie-Marie's biggest fear is leaving Julie before she's able to fully prepare her granddaughter for a lifelong journey that will eventually also take her to Pacamambo.
"Her watchfulness over the course of the play, though she's on a different plane of being, nudges Julie gently along the road with the help of Growl."
It's through Julie's storytelling that the audience gets a strong idea of Marie-Marie, notes Polak.
"There's an unspoken blood link between the two," she says. "Both look at the world from an angle that most people don't have. Like a cubist work of art, the play examines its subject from different perspectives, so that what is real or true keeps shifting."
This isn't the first time Polak has played a dog. Early in her career she made a strong impression as a sensual devil hound in Gertrude Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights The Lights.
"Growl is quite different, nicer and more loyal, although he has his own opinions and isn't completely subservient to either his mistress or her grandmother," smiles the actor.
"I've had a vision of playing a dog onstage again, and since I was cast I've been watching how they move and react to humans in their world. He's the one who's able to bridge the gap between Marie-Marie and Julie, and the humour with which he's presented will help young audiences get into the play."
Mouawad - author of the acclaimed play Scorched, which was made into the Oscar-nominated film Incendies - uses theatrical magic to make the play work for viewers of any age, agrees Harper.
"Even though the subject matter is difficult for a child, the writing doesn't shy away from or whitewash it. In the play I'm a decomposing corpse, and if you say that as a fact, a child will believe it. In the theatre, so will an adult. You need no more than a good imagination to bring anything to life."