Director: Sarah Garton Stanley Written By: Yann Martel, adapted by Lindsay Cochrane Starring: Damian Atkins, Pierre Brault Runtime: 90 minutes
When a name as well known as Yann Martel’s is attached to a work, one walks into a performance with certain expectations; in this case, animals and allegory. Personal narration and a “meta” aspect are also bound to make an appearance. Such was the case with the new play Beatrice & Virgil, based on Martel’s novel of the same name, which was basically a Life of Pi treatment of the Holocaust.
In this play about a play, Henry the Writer (Damian Atkins) is explaining in a lecture how he came to write the play Beatrice & Virgil. It starts with him losing his job and relocating to a small town, where Henry the Taxidermist (Pierre Brault) asks for his help finishing his play. What the first Henry doesn’t realize yet is that the titular characters, Beatrice and Virgil, are animals, a donkey and a howler monkey, respectively. As the lecture progresses and more is revealed about both the play being written and its mysterious writer, the audience is pulled deeper into unraveling the tales being presented to them in tandem.
The play is stunning, both visually and orally. The art direction goes above and beyond anything that could have been expected; it is layered and nuanced, subtle yet revelatory in a way that the writing simply is not. As each sheet systematically falls to the stage, the audience is forced to look further back on it, and further into the play. The projection work is also quite well done, adding to the overall effect that the use of multimedia, such as the ceiling cameras on the actors, added to the interpretation. The modern feel of the play was a welcome relief in something that drew so heavily on 20th century references to other Holocaust works, as well as Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot, which was clear from the dialogue alone (although the tree was nice, too).
The acting performances were also well done, featuring powerful and multifaceted portrayals of struggle, trauma, and loss. Brault’s varying accents were fun and whimsical as well as aloof and odd. Atkin’s pretentious professor was on point, despite his annoying habit of popping his Ps and over enunciating in that particular role. As Beatrice, he was effeminate, scared, and soft, at once trying to comfort Virgil and be comforted by him. The actors both became very engrossed in their animal roles, taking on the mannerisms and postures more and more as the story progresses to great effect.
The one thing holding this play back is the story itself. Yann Martel is fond of certain tricks, and one’s feeling about them will determine whether or not one will be able to look past the mode of storytelling and into the story itself. While one of Henry the Writer’s arguments for using animal allegories is that “animals are free from irony,” this point is rendered almost moot by the amount of symbolism they are thrown under. One thing for which I will give adaptor Lindsay Cochrane credit is seeing the potential this patchwork of a book had as a play. While certain elements could have stood to be cut from the play adaptation, like the pets, overall the metanarrative comes across more effectively in this form, and it is subtler than in the book. While subtlety was not necessarily the intention with this work, it really could have benefitted from a good dose of it.
Overall, the play suffered due to its source material, not through any fault of the direction or production company. Henry the Writer lectures that one cannot get too focused on the roots when it is the fruit you seek, but the fruit will not be of any value if the roots are tenuous at best, and dead at worst.