There’s a scene in Scorched where a casual meeting takes place in the living room of a Canadian home. A sprinkler sprays water on the window. It’s a quiet, gentle moment that lulls us into a sense of calm. What happens next is gut-wrenching, visceral. As the house lights went up at intermission I’m not sure the audience wanted to clap or reach for some metoprolol. This is a play that I wouldn’t call entertaining. That’s the wrong adjective. Yes, it’s beautiful – A.C.T.’s staging is absolutely living art (again). Yes, the acting is superb. And, yes, the dialog is riveting. But the mystery looming over this story is so frightening, at times taudry and most certainly ruthless that it would be unfair to call this a typical night at the theater. What we have instead is an epic, not-to-be-missed play that alludes my best efforts to nail it in a word.
I do know this: Scorched is the first play — or any other live production for that matter — I’ve seen that features a reference to Canadian Tire. I guess there really is more to Canadian Tire than just tires.
The opening scene has notary Alphonse Lebel (San Francisco native David Strathairn in a charming, effortless performance for the ages) executing the will of the deceased mother of twins Simon (Babak Tafti), an amateur boxer with pro aspirations, and his sister Janine (Annie Purcell) a math professor who sees life as one big impossible-to-solve hypothesis. The children are angry, and feel abandoned. Four-letter expletives base their emotions. Why did their mother treat them as cast-offs? Part of the answer might lie in some letters, and clothing left to them as part of the estate. Over the next two hours, an emotional, far-reaching journey unfolds, taking the twins from Canada to the Middle East, and back again, in one mesmerizing scene after another.
Childhood is a knife stuck in the throat.
There are some wicked deeds; this is not sugar-coated musical fare. In the second act, we meet a trigger happy sniper who likes to photograph his victims as they die. Barbaric, but so artfully staged – and even an odd, partly absurd moment involving a Supertramp song. And later, one of the most interesting mathematical monologues I’ve ever witnessed, involving a trick that brings back everything back to the number “one.”
Carey Perloff’s direction is typically grandiose, and classic. At first I found the continual placement of the twins together in very precise, cold ways around the stage to be quite odd and unnatural. As I thought more about the show (and this is a show that sticks with you, the visuals are undeniably haunting) I realized that this was perhaps an intentional design; something related to the pentagon, the concept of a visibility graph I won’t give away here.
I’ve seen many shows at the A.C.T. on Geary, and this set is the most spectacular as any I’ve seen in recent memory. Layers upon layers unfold. And that lighting (Russell H. Champa)! This is possibly the most gorgeous lighting design to grace this stage. Goosebumps it will induce.
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The centerpiece is an impressive performance by David Strathairn that anchors the production with much welcomed levity, and sly charm. He’s a bit aloof we’re led to believe – “Bloomsday”? I’m not sure that’s his native accent or if he’s doing a brilliant Canadian impression. Either way, the tone of this play is spot on. I grew up in Ottawa. My best friends were from Lebanon, Greece, Italy and Portugal (mosaic, eh!) and these characters all feel real to me.
Learning to escape hatred and poverty might not seem like a fun night out on the town. However, the haunting images, the beautiful staging and top tier acting conspire to make this one of the most unforgettable nights of theater I’ve experienced in quite some time.
Now, would someone please bring me those three pails already!
4.5 out of 5 stars (Right on the Money)
American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.)
By Wajdi Mouawad
Translated by Linda Gaboriau
Directed by Carey Perloff
Starring David Strathairn, Babak Tafti, Annie Purcell, Manoel Felciano, Marjan Neshat, Nick Gabriel, Jacqueline Antaramian, Apollo Dukakis, Omozé Idehenre
Through March 11, 2012
Performance attended: February 29, 2012