JWR Articles: Live Event - The Aeneid (Director: Keira Loughran) - September 3, 2016
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The Aeneid

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If only it was this simple

A father’s sage, otherworldly advice to his son while leading his displaced people to a new, faraway land, having been forced out of their own, even while ignoring the obvious danger (heralded by a homeless man, wise beyond his means—who better to raise the alarm but someone already living the predicament?) and obliviously dancing in the streets is prescriptive and simple: “Leave your hatred at the last strand of barbed wire.” (Then live in peace and prosperity in your new home. Really?)

Borrowing the title and many of the characters from Virgil’s epic poem (completed in 19 B.C.), playwright Olivier Kemeid (translated for this production by Maureen Labonté) has played fast, loose and modern with Aeneas’ journey of a lifetime and delivered a version devoid of lyricism, subtlety and realistic hope for the millions of present-day refugees (in camps, on boats, or various states of settlement) whose lives are forever changed by all manner of global bullies, brute cowards, self-entitled and greedy “civilized” persons.

The intent is laudable but Kemeid can’t find an overarching point of view and stick with it in the slow moving voyage that sent my seatmates home at intermission.

Dividing the work into elements (Fire, Water, Earth, Underworld, Blood) rather than the more common Books for English translations, looked good on paper but lacked enough dramatic “glue” to keep the audience fully engaged.

Flirting with the storied past (Aeneas, wife Creusa, father Anchises and infant son, Ascanius lead their countrymen from Greek-ravaged Troy to found a calmer, if not promised land—Rome) and juxtaposing 21st century holiday island resorts and an immigration officer from hell (as two examples) along with an Underworld Sibyl who runs the Best Little Whorehouse in Hades only deflects and weakens the thrust and drive of the original narrative with cheesy (and often not as funny as intended) attempts to bring current relevance to the fabled trek.

So much for that.

In the acting department, the ever-capable Stratford ensemble does yeoman’s service to the author-challenged roles.

Gareth Potter as Aeneas and Saamer Usmani playing best bud Achates work very well together—even managing the “Where have you been?” scene with more believability than the words warranted.

Monice Peter was a convincing wife to Aeneas and even better in her ghostly appearances.

Doing double duty as metaphorically homeless Hector and “watery” Robert, Mike Nadajewski put another feather in his incredible range-of-characterizations cap.

Michael Spencer-Davis was an appropriately wise and stoic father to Aeneas while the women on the voyage (Bahareh Yaraghi as Pyrgo, Karen Robinson portraying Beroe—and later the Immigration Officer) added depth and intensity to the troubled troupe.

Triple billed as Lucy, Helen and Elissa, Lanise Antoine Shelley positively soared through her roles, most especially the latter where, compellingly, she came to grips with Aeneas’ evaporating love in favour of fulfilling his destiny. 

Designer Joanna Yu did a commendable job stitching the multitudinous visual looks and effects together but could have gone to school on Morris Panych’s Moby Dick (cross-reference below) for guidance on how to bring full-masted ships to vibrant life in the Studio Theatre.

Itai Erdal’s lighting plot certainly kept eyes trained where they were meant to be, while the sound design from Debashis Sinha brought everyone straight into the echoes of hell (what fun that the train sequence was foreshadowed in real time as several freight trains tooted their passage through town just a few blocks away).

Director Keira Loughran did her best with the material at hand, but I was left with the distinct impression that Kemeid’s desire to shed new light on desperate lives struggling daily to find a safe “land” would have been better served by translating his vision into a take-no-prisoners documentary instead of trying to force Virgil’s marvellously rounded pegs into decidedly square holes. JWR

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