ENOCH ARDEN, BY ALFRED, LORD JABBER AND HIS CATATONIC SONGSTRESS by Judith Thompson, music by Richard Strauss, directed by Maria Lamont, with John Fitzgerald Jay and Kristin Mueller. Presented by the Theatre Centre (1087 Queen West). Runs to October 9, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $5-$15, Sunday pwyc. 416-538-0988. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
One of now's top 10 shows of last year, Enoch Arden, By Alfred, Lord Jabber And His Catatonic Songstress returns from its SummerWorks success (it had a less cumbersome title then) in a production that's even more complete and thrilling.
Judith Thompson has taken Richard Strauss 's 1898 musical setting of a Tennyson poem and placed it intriguingly in a Parkdale halfway house. Two emotionally disturbed inmates - Jabber ( John Fitzgerald Jay ) and Ciel ( Kristin Mueller ) - are holed up in what looks like a cluttered basement. The sound of streetcars and sirens outside Parkdale's Theatre Centre adds to the verité feel.
Living up to his name, Jabber chatters on about a talent competition he wants to enter, and before long he's embarking on a recitation of Tennyson's poem, learned by heart in childhood.
Continually interrupting his own excited performance of the melodramatic poem, Jabber mixes up details of his own isolated life with that of the tragic, misunderstood Enoch Arden. The near-catatonic Ciel, meanwhile, perks up and begins accompanying him on a piano, occasionally singing but never speaking.
Thompson, no stranger to dealing with madness and the marginalized onstage, captures both characters' pain, joys and delusions, all without a trace of sentimentality. What's real and what's fictional remains a mystery; all we know is that this story has significance for both of them.
In a play with such a complicated narrative and emotional arc you need firm direction, and Maria Lamont captures the sense of mystery while grounding the production with specific details. David Skelton 's set and lighting help, especially a raised wooden platform used for Jabber's more formal recitations.
The performances are exquisite. Jay handles the flashier role with manic energy and lots of charm, even in his paranoid rants, while Mueller makes a subtler shift from statue-like stillness to compassionate involvement.
Not since The Drawer Boy have a pair of friends' hurts and joys been rendered so powerfully, so cathartically onstage.