TWO ROOMS by Mansel Robinson, translated by Jean Marc Dalpé, directed by Geneviève Pineault (Théâtre français de Toronto/ Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario/ Théâtre de la Vieille). At the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs (26 Berkeley). To Sunday (February 3), Friday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday 3:30 pm and Sunday 2:30 pm. Surtitled performances Friday and Saturday. $28-$48, Saturday evening rush $20. 416-534-6604. See listing. Rating: NNN
In Two Rooms, the political blurs with the personal in a surprising fashion, leading to tragedy.
Mansel Robinson's play receives its Toronto premiere as part of the Théâtre français de Toronto season, in a French translation by Jean Marc Dalpé that's retitled II (Deux).
At the play's heart is the war on terror, though here the phrase refers to more than the events of 9/11. In two stories told alternately by white French-Canadian policeman Mercier and his North African Muslim wife, Maha, we learn that Maha is suspected of terrorism and that her husband has, in his own way and for his own reasons, brought her to justice.
They sit in a single jail cell, but their stories intentionally run counter to each other much of the time; Norman Thériault's set lets the audience know that though the two sit side by side, they exist in different worlds.
We learn that she's regularly subjected to racist comments and attitudes while he has to put up with the ribbing of his fellow policemen for having a Muslim spouse. The attacks on both of them are insistent and eventually twist the loving couple - we see a few flashbacks in which their affection for each other is established - into two isolated individuals who no longer know how to relate to each other.
She begins an affair; he starts to doubt, on several levels, her loyalty.
Dalpé gives a wonderfully nuanced, intense performance as Mercier, tough and belligerent much of the time as he discusses the war against terrorism that has come to his own country, along with the racism and bigotry he himself has started to understand. He's moved quite a distance from the attraction and affection he once felt for "the Berber swing of those Tunisian hips." At times, though, he's tender as he remembers their meeting and the early years of their marriage.
As Maha, a doctor who's not allowed to practice in Canada and forced to find other work, Elkahna Talbi doesn't have the same range as her fellow actor; only when she's literally being interrogated for terrorism does she make an emotional impression. Possibly director Geneviève Pineault intends that in the first part of the production we see a compliant figure who doesn't want to disturb those around her, but there should be at least some hint of rage underlying Maha's life in the west.
As they fight over the war on terror at the breakfast table, their marriage falls apart. She'd like to tell him about her affair but gets cold feet; no longer trusting his wife, Mercier is as much angry with himself as with Maha.
The increasing tension in their lives leads to the play's climax, one that rings both horrific and sad as we see the ruins of what was once a tender relationship.