Zen Zen Zo: Thérèse Raquin
I expect Zen Zen Zo to unsettle me, even without the aid of ghosts. Their trademark physicality, in whatever form it takes, always incites conflicting responses: at once beguiling and grotesque. What I wasn’t expecting, when I took my seat to watch their adaptation of Thérèse Raquin (a gothic novel written by Emile Zola in the 19th century), was to hear my heartbeat over and above the actor’s voices; to experience the cold kick of dread; and to need a calming hot chocolate afterwards.
In short, the play is terrifying. Zen Zen Zo’s contorted Butoh faces morph easily into the ghosts and demons (imagined or otherwise) that populate Thérèse Raquin’s world.
But it isn’t simply the physicality of these actors that turns the screw of this narrative — though it plays a large part. In tandem with this is the rich and intricate story-telling technique, guided by director Helen Howard, who worked with Michael Futcher to adapt this novel.
The laws and gravity of realism don’t restrict the technique of this play. Rather, what we get is a series of resonant images draped across the bones of the narrative, which is, indeed, quite bare. That the plot is slim, however, doesn’t detract. Zola himself considered the story simply a catalyst, an arena into which he could throw his characters — who are themselves nothing more than singular temperaments. Thérèse, played tremendously by Lizzie Ballinger, is “nervous”; she is a physical puppet possessed and completely determined by a single temperament: anxious, reactionary, hysterical.
Howard and Futcher understand this well, and, accordingly, all the characters move like they are ragdolls. You can almost see the strings rising from their arms and legs. This metaphorical human puppetry culminates in one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve witnessed in theatre. Thérèse’s comatose guardian, Mme Raquin (played by Louise Brehmer), is here turned literally into a puppet by the ghost of her dead son, who manipulates her arms and head. Brehmer’s eyes are wide and shining. Her bared teeth chatter. Her body looks like it’s made of wood. I couldn’t look away, even though I wanted to.
The lighting, managed by Jason Glenwright, beautifully compliments this mood of menace and isolation. Shafts of yellow light sporadically punctuate the gloom. Occasionally the set is washed entirely in dark blue, transporting the audience into the depths of the Seine.
By the same token the set design, by Josh Mcintosh, is sparse, cold, and alienating. Tiny chairs surround a huge table. Gigantic, empty, wooden doorframes make the characters appear tiny. A general air of dilapidation hovers over this set. My only criticism, here, is that I would have loved to see those giant doorframes used as guillotines.
Eugene Gilfedder shines as the anxious detective, Michaud, who also narrates the story. He slips effortlessly between narrating at the present moment, looking back, and participating obliviously in that past, where the murder takes place. He is at once completely aware and blind to everything, friendly to all and utterly menacing.
The play, unfortunately, loses momentum in its second half and seems to peter out towards its anti-climactic end. The narrator, Michaud, also, has a heavier presence in the second half, unnecessarily emphasising the characters’ collective blindness, when we can, ironically, see it all so clearly in front of us.
But these are small quibbles with what is a fantastic production. It punches you in the gut, winds you, triggers something primal in you; but it does so in a way that is at the same time creatively and intellectually complex.
THÉRÈSE RAQUIN runs until Dec 8 at the Old Museum Building. www.zenzenzo.com
JEREMY THOMPSON‘s work has since been published in Small Packages, Rave Magazine, Voiceworks, and Notes From The Gean. He is OSP’s assistant editor.