Reviewed in this essay:
“Sally forth, comrades!” – with these three words you are likely to be ushered into Theatre Pass Muraille’s intimate backspace by a friendly-faced, trouser-clad woman named Jim. You’ll shuffle to your seat while she bickers with a male partner over the particularities of a script – rehearsal is already underway. As you negotiate your relationship to this demonstration, take note of the intimate theatre space (complete with a two-tiered stage space, and chairs lining the stage) and maybe you’ll be fortunate enough to be the object of Jim’s poised questioning (“Tell me, do you come from money?”). Straightaway, Jesus Chrysler immerses the audience in the chief questions of the play: the status, parameters and possibilities of theatrical performance.
Written by Tara Beagan and directed by Michael Wheeler, the action of the play focues on the fraught but passionate relations between Eugenia “Jim” Watts (Margaret Evans) and Dorothy “Dee” Livesay (Aviva Armour-Ostroff). In addition to being active members of the Communist Party of Canada, Livesay and Watts were also artists and actors. In the 1930s, they helped found the Theatre of Action, presenting the Canadian premiere of Clifford Odet’s drama Waiting for Lefty. Inventively imagining an episode from their past concerning an early rehearsal for Odet’s play, Beagan also inserts Nate (Jeffrey Wetsch) between Jim and Dee, effectively triangulating and deflecting the two women’s desire for one another.
Most of the historical detail of the play comes to the viewer in fragments – be they the torn pages that rain down from the upper stage or the radio snippets of Jim’s program from Spain – and the performance continually foregrounds the creative and destructive possibilities of theatrical recreation.
In its intense self-awareness and meta-theatrical tendencies, Jesus Chrysler demands some intellectual rigour from its audience (in the tradition of a different kind of radical theatre). At the same time, peppered with the right mix of sentimental interaction between Jim and Dee and Nate’s easy, unaffected humour, Beagan demonstrates her investment in theatre as entertainment as well as instruction.
To quote the company’s mandate: “The impetus underlying all our projects is the same: We believe in the potential and power of new stories, created by local artists, to give audiences the opportunity to question the world we engage in and how we shape it.” Jesus Chrysler is no exception; Beagan and Wheeler fulfill the terms of this injunction to its fullest. In its emphasis on the reconciliatory and imaginative capacity of performance and the space of the theatre, Jesus Chrysler manages to stay true to the spirit of the progressive theatre without reproducing a didactic agit-prop, but in a fresh and decidedly contemporary production.
Jesus Chrysler marks Praxis Theatre’s first joint venture with an established theatre company; with this rich and promising delivery, the company makes their own sure-footed sally forward into Toronto’s theatre scene.