In a world ravaged by capitalism, being good often feels like a pipe dream entertained only by the young and naive. Because really, when push comes to shove, we’re only as good as the results of our actions, and if there’s anything certain about life, it is its unrelenting uncertainty.
You might think this sounds like a bleak outlook. (Because, well, it is.) But somehow Fanny Britt’s Governor General’s award-winning play Benevolence investigates these weighty questions of morality and grief through humour, wit, and razor-sharp writing. A plot that could have left the audience in tears instead had the Great Canadian Theatre Company’s opening night crowd dissolving into laughter again and again.
Leanna Brodie’s translation of Britt’s self-proclaimed “pitch-black comedy” introduces big-shot Montreal lawyer, Gilles Jean, who is brought back to his hometown of Benevolence for a case. Faced with a perpetually grieving mother and a tragedy-stricken childhood friend, Bruno, (whose wife, Isabelle, hates Gilles), the homecoming is less than ideal. Thanks to unrelenting back-and-forths and meticulously placed asides, the play reveals the facts of the case to the audience and shows us just how far our protagonist has gone in the pursuit of moral salvation.
Director and former artistic director of GCTC Eric Coates brings a steady hand to this offbeat plot and drives the dramatic action of the play through snappy delivery and well-timed jokes. Everything about the direction feels both effortless and very intentional. Even Brian Smith’s set design feels somewhat plain and utilitarian at first. Yet, as the plot unfolds and drama erupts from its cramped walls, the grey, off-kiltered kitchen masterfully embodies the claustrophobic, bleak, and morally blurred position of the play’s lead.
And let me just say, Pierre Simpson in that lead role is bulletproof. His performance as unreliable narrator, Gilles, is an indisputable highlight of this production. Guiding us through the journey of the play with precision and sincerity, Simpson sculpts an effortless rapport with the audience. His breaks of the fourth wall, however aplenty, offer well-needed insight into Gilles’ psyche and make for a fun storytelling device. And as our escort into the world of Benevolence, audiences can’t help but empathize with him. Bad decision after worse decision, our sympathies never waver, making Gilles’ self-destruction just that much more excruciating.
The ensemble work as a whole is formidable and the easy chemistry between each performer makes for a convincing (and frankly, damn entertaining) familial unit. Will Somers’ Bruno is a hilariously blunt complement to Simpson’s spasmodically anxious Gilles, and Puja Uppal’s simmering ferocity as Isabelle is unmatched. Even wearing many character hats, Sébastien Dijkstra gives equal care and breath to his performances as corporate villain, ghost father, and Scottish lover.
A crowd favorite seemed to be Mélanie Beauchamp’s larger-than-life rendition of Gilles’ mother – familiar but never pedestrian in the role of the Francophone matriarch. Despite her performance feeling occasionally outside the frequency of the play, I can’t deny that her presence commended the audience’s and characters’ attention alike.
This production wouldn’t be what it is, however, without the sheer vivacity of its foundational text. Britt’s effervescent world delivered through Brodie’s pristine English translation is pretty mesmerizing. Nimble and modestly poetic, the script makes this show worth it alone. Any fans of good playwriting won’t be disappointed.
On top of technical prowess, I think what makes this show such a great addition to the GCTC season is its multi-layered multilingualism. Translated from French and featuring bilingual characters and performers, this play is deeply Canadian. For Ottawa audiences and for Franco-Ontarians like myself, quips about the French language provoke a whole lot of laughter, but also ensure an undeniable degree of relatability. The small Québec town of Benevolence doesn’t actually exist, but with how authentically it reads, that fact is easily forgotten. Gilles’ anecdotes about his Québécois mother (who doesn’t mind if he’s gay, but would never want to see him grow up to become a federalist) and complaints about Francophone naming habits are beyond recognizable and make for guaranteed entertainment for the GCTC audience – even my guest who, despite not speaking a word of French, was laughing along with the rest of the crowd. Since the comedy relies more on a general understanding of Québécois culture instead of a linguistic one, the play does a great job of fostering a bond with its French-attuned audience by allowing us to feel in on the jokes without alienating any non-French attendees.
Benevolence is a great example of GCTC’s strengths as a company; it is moving, polished, and enjoyable for just about anyone. If the standing ovation at the performance I attended was any indication, I suspect this will be many audience members’ favourite show of the season.
Benevolence runs at the Great Canadian Theatre Company until December 17. Tickets are available here.
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