MANON, SANDRA AND THE VIRGIN MARY by Michel Tremblay, translated and directed by John Van Burek, with Richard McMillan and Irene Poole. Presented by Pleiades Theatre at Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander). Previews from Saturday (January 11), opens Wednesday (January 15) and runs to February 2, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday and Sunday 2:30 pm. $32-$37, under 30 $27-$31, limited rush Tuesday-Thursday $20, Sunday pwyc, previews $20. 416-975-8555. See listing.
A deeply religious woman and a promiscuous transvestite would seem worlds apart. But in Michel Tremblay's Manon, Sandra And The Virgin Mary, their lives and desires are inextricably linked.
Pleiades Theatre's John Van Burek, who translated and directed the play in 1979 - it was then called Damnée Manon, Sacrée Sandra - revives this east-end Montreal tale to introduce theatregoers to the writer whom Van Burek considers Canada's best playwright.
"No one brings the same range, scope, longevity, depth and poetic imagination to the stage that Michel does," says the former artistic director of Théâtre Français de Toronto, which introduced many of Tremblay's scripts to local audiences. Van Burek's also translated a number of the plays into English.
"There's an incredible vividness to his plays that holds up," he continues. "When the Tarragon did a production of The Real World several years ago, viewers who didn't know his work were gobsmacked by the power of the writing."
Van Burek's always been drawn to Manon, Sandra, which he considers "the most beautiful and poetic" of Tremblay's works, one that presents the two characters through paired monologues.
"He's built the play around the ideas of the sacred and the profane, which sounds abstract, but the lyricism he uses turns it into a piece of musical geometry. Neither of the characters, both of them minor characters in other Tremblay plays [Manon in Forever Yours, Marie-Lou; Sandra in Hosanna and Saint Carmen Of The Main], is what you expect when you first meet them."
The devout Manon lives her solitary life largely secluded in her dead parents' house, never having moved far from where she was born. Drag queen Sandra, her neighbour, inhabits an ever-chan ward to her next fuck.
"Michel takes those two seemingly opposite characters and shows the complexity beneath each of them," explains Van Burek. "In comparison to their appearances in earlier plays, where they were factotums or catalysts for the action of others, here they become fully fleshed-out creations.
"Manon has grown up in a threatening environment, frightened by the world, and she finds comfort in religion. But now she finds the carpet pulled out from under her. In a terrible moment of distress and anxiety, all she believes in crumbles. It's then that we discover the real nature of her relationship with God."
Even more surprising is the sensual Sandra, who's concocted a protective world from the various women she plays and the bitchiness she spews at everyone.
"Beneath the surface, she's on a spiritual quest. Sandra, like Manon, is looking for some kind of certitude and reassurance that goes beyond the different fictional solaces they've both created."
A play like Manon, Sandra is proof to Van Burek that Tremblay's works are important beyond the political and social context for which they were hailed in the 1960s and 70s.
"Now that context has fallen by the wayside, and we have some amazingly good plays. Twenty years from now, 50 years, they'll still be just as wonderful, and that only happens when there's a poet at work."