Review: ‘La Maison Suspendue’

Prolific Canadian author Michel Tremblay's 1990 "La Maison suspendue" (loosely translated, "House Among the Stars") plays his familiar motifs of incest and family identity in a complex multigenerational drama. Too complex, perhaps, for its own good. Unhelped by Keith Phillips' wobbly staging, the play's thicket of narrative revelations resists untangling, leaving little room for involvement.

Prolific Canadian author Michel Tremblay’s 1990 “La Maison suspendue” (loosely translated, “House Among the Stars”) plays his familiar motifs of incest and family identity in a complex multigenerational drama. Too complex, perhaps, for its own good. Unhelped by Keith Phillips’ wobbly staging, the play’s thicket of narrative revelations resists untangling, leaving little room for involvement.

The action is set on a rustic northern Quebec cabin stoop, where three episodes from an ancestral history take up overlapping stage residence. In 1910, sensible Victoire (Catherine Castellanos) and free-spirited musician brother Josephat (Chris Phillips) clash over a possible move to the big city. Forty years later, sour Albertine (Edith Bryson) bristles with shame at the behavior of cross-dressing sib Edouard (Louis Parnell), while a sister-in-law tagged “La Gross Femme” (Niki Hersh) looks on.

In 1990, visiting writer Jean-Marc (Richard Lindstrom) and his cousin Mathieu (Scott Phillips) are lovers at a personal crossroads. In each era a child (played by the same young actor, Cameron Fife) waits for adults to decide his future — decisions often preordained by those made decades earlier.

Paeans to surrounding natural beauty and snips of local mythology suggest “La Maison suspendue’s” intended mood of elegiac, mournful lyricism. (This production’s periodic drenchings from Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” lay it on a bit thick.) But the play’s point gets lost amid the branches of this impenetrably complicated family tree.

There’s something going on here about the loss of steadying rural roots, with a resulting malaise that stifles clan members through the years. Yet whatever links these personalities over time, beyond blood relation, evades audience grasp.

The Actors Theater doesn’t add much in the way of clarity. Superficial characterizations, with hurried line readings and vague Quebecois accents, fail to telegraph secrets that Tremblay already holds too close to his vest. Cramped stage quarters also impose a monotonous air, through Steven Coleman’s woodsy set is handsome. While “La Maison suspendue” reaches for cyclical grandeur, the author’s intent appears lost somewhere in translation.

La Maison Suspendue

Production

SAN FRANCISCO An Actors Theater of San Francisco presentation of a drama in two acts by Michel Tremblay, translated by John Van Burek. Directed by Keith Phillips. Assistant director, Nadja Kennedy.

Crew

Set, Steven Coleman; lighting, sound design, Michael V. Smith; costumes, Luisa Adrianzen. Artistic director, Chris Phillips. Opened Jan. 14, 1994, at the Actors Theater. Reviewed Jan. 16; 99 seats; $ 16 top.

With

Victoire ... Catherine Castellanos Josephat-LeViolon ... Chris Phillips La Gross Femme ... Niki Hersh Albertine ... Edith Bryson Edouard ... Louis Parnell Jean-Marc ... Richard Lindstrom Mathieu ... Scott Phillips Gabriel/Marcel/ Sebastien ... Cameron Fife
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