So, who is this man who got away, anyhow?
Well. That’s a complex question.
Martin Julien is an actor and theatre scholar whose growing-up was anything but normal. His father was gay, his mother lesbian, two queer folks in a straight marriage with a straight kid. Julien practically grew up with a third parent, given his father’s love for Judy Garland, and that love survived the generational gap — even now, Julien internalizes Garland’s legacy, and in The Man That Got Away (A Special Appearance), Garland appears as a ghost, armed with sage advice and the occasional song.
The Man That Got Away is, by and large, a solo show, in which Julien walks us through the complications of his coming-of-age, introducing us to his parents through storytelling and recorded interview snippets. Occasionally, the solo-ness of the show dissipates, giving way to Tat Austrie’s take on Garland. Austrie’s a commendable stand-in — with a similar smoky voice and boisterous presence — and designer Sean Mulcahy’s costumes further cement Austrie as Garland, clad in a sequin suit which echoes the late actress’.
Julien’s a captivating storyteller, and the convergence of the interview excerpts with
his monologue creates a varied, layered narrative that never feels like an extended game of “remember when?.” But even at its most engaging, The Man That Got Away runs a long two-and-a-bit hours. Julien’s storytelling is poignant, raw, and ultimately touching, but it feels like there’s room for further trims of repeated motifs. A tighter script doesn’t feel so far off — and the show’s heart is so big that it more than deserves further polish.
As well, Julien’s engagement with the ghost of Garland is fascinating — and opens up questions on the ethics of putting words in her mouth. Julien masterfully approximates Garland’s cadence and lexicon, and has made the choice to appoint Austrie-as-Garland as a sort of confidant. Peter Hinton-Davis has directed this choice well, drawing the audience’s gaze towards Austrie when needed and diverting it back towards Julien as his life story gets closer and closer to the present moment. But dramaturgically, I’m not sure where I stand on Garland-as-conscience. As she quite rightly says in The Man That Got Away, she was used for others’ narrative gain plenty when she was alive — Julien’s words on her behalf point out that problem, but arguably contribute to it, too.
What prevails, however, are the three knockout performances which anchor the show: Julien as himself, Austrie as Garland, and Ben Page on the twinkling piano keys. The chemistry between the three performers is charming and friendly, familiar and jovial, and contrasts some of the emotional awkwardness we come to recognize as typical between Julien’s parents. The story of his parents and their eventual deaths is heavy; the music shared between the three artists onstage never is.
This is a solid outing for what could be a gem of a solo show with further workshopping and disciplined cuts. Julien has an intriguing and potentially appealing project here — I hope he keeps at it as the material continues to settle.
The Man That Got Away (A Special Appearance) closed at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre on December 18. More information can be found here.
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