PACAMAMBO by Wajdi Mouawad (Canadian Rep). At the Citadel (304 Parliament). Runs to February 2, Wednesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday and February 1 at 2:30 pm. $24-$36. 416-504-7529. See listing. Rating: NNNN
One of the most difficult jobs that an adult faces is explaining death to a child.
Wajdi Mouawad takes a poetic, fairy-tale stab at it with Pacamambo, whose central character, the young Julie (Amy Keating), is at a sleepover with her grandmother, Marie Marie (Kyra Harper), when the old woman dies.
Refusing to accept the loss, Julie, accompanied by her dog, Growl (Michelle Polak), takes her grandma's body to the basement and demands that Death account for taking away the person she loved most. Discovered nearly three weeks later, Julie is questioned by a psychiatrist (Karen Robinson) who can't understand her motives.
Using Shelley Tepperman's English translation of the original French, director Ken Gass's shimmering, suggestive production expertly contrasts the adult's world of reason and logic and the child's realm of instinct and spirit. As Julie explains her actions to the psychiatrist, we're drawn into her universe, one inspired by Marie Marie's tale of Pacamambo, an enchanted land where everyone is equal and intertwined with everyone else.
In Marian Wihak's minimalist set, lit by Rebecca Picherack and underscored by Wayne Kelso's primal soundscape, the show often has the quality of a dream. As she leaves this world, the grandmother advises Julie to seek her own way to Pacamambo. With the sometimes unwilling aid of Growl, who can communicate with both the living and the dead, Julie sets out on a quest that involves perfume, makeup and an intention to punch Death in the face.
It's a touching, highly theatrical hour, culminating in Julie's confrontation of the elegant Death, not as unsympathetic a figure as one might assume.
The cast is first-rate, beginning with Keating's initially sullen, antagonistic Julie, unafraid to challenge both real and imaginary figures of authority. We see the action through her eyes, which involves a look not only at death but also the human tendency to separate people into "us" and "them." As Julie points out to the psychiatrist, she and the therapist believe in two different realities.
Harper's Marie Marie is a sympathetic figure, ever watchful over her granddaughter even as she turns into a decomposing corpse, while Robinson does a double turn as the psychiatrist and the seductive, smart Death. We fully understand Marie's warning to Julie to keep a firm hold on life, for in Robinson's performance, Death is oh-so enticing.
Mouawad's intended audience includes those as young as nine as well as adults, and it's Growl who provides a child's way into the show. Polak's winning performance, complete with doggy movements, a rough human voice and a bark and growl that would prick up the ears of other canines in the area, is both comic and endearing.
Growl's heartbeat grounds Julie as much as the inspiring but sometimes sad lessons she learns: that Pacamambo is a place of unifying love, and that if you accept life, you must also accept death.