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Benevolence: exuberance, compassion

by | Oct 1, 2022 | Review | 0 comments


publicity photo for Benevolence

Okay, just start giving Charlie Gallant prizes for his performance in Benevolence. (Photo by Moonrider Productions)

On my trip to Benevolence, I started on a hill, then wandered through a valley. As I climbed the rise on the other side, I was surprised to find a startling view. Translation: I got bored in the middle of this show, but there’s such an excellent payoff that my overriding response is gratitude.

Ruby Slippers Theatre commissioned Leanna Brodie’s English translation of Fanny Britt’s French-language script.

It’s about a highly paid lawyer named Gilles who returns to his hometown, Benevolence, Quebec, where he encounters multiple moral challenges. Gilles’s closest childhood friend, Bruno, has a young stepson named Zachary, who has been involved in a life-altering accident. Bruno and his partner Isabelle are suing the ambulance company for their slow response. Gilles knows they are right to do so, but his high-powered firm has assigned him to defend the ambulance company — and he knows he can win. Gilles wants to do the right thing, but, at a series of junctures, he finds that very, very difficult.

To be clear, Benevolence is not a ploddingly naturalistic legal drama, it’s a fantastical, sometimes paradoxical adult fairy tale. Gilles’s mother, who has lost three sons before him, isn’t just loud and overprotective; everywhere she goes, she is accompanied by the warm breeze of their ghosts. Gilles’s father impregnated his mother with Gilles — while sobbing — then disappeared forever, except when he appears in visions to offer Gilles questionable advice.

The writing is densely literary in its language and concepts as well as its imagery: the script obsessively examines the ideas of loving and leaving from multiple angles, for instance.

Wisely, director Diane Brown has embraced the vivacity of Britt’s storytelling and infused this production with stylistic exuberance. You see it immediately in Charlie Gallant’s performance as Gilles. In a series of long speeches, the character addresses the audience directly, and it might be tempting to present him in a naturalistic way but, under Brown’s guidance, Gallant revels in the language, hurling himself at individual words and phrases, swinging through the rhythms. It’s exhilarating.

Everybody in this cast shows strengths. I particularly enjoyed the work of Paul Moniz De Sa, who offers boldly differentiated textures as Gilles’s terrifying boss Marc Raymond, the insinuating ghost of Gilles’s father, and a third character — simply, achingly romantic — whom I won’t identify. Chris Lam’s Bruno felt a bit wooden off the top on opening night, but grew in responsiveness — and his deadpan is patentable. The character of Mom might be the trickiest to find in an English-language production — she feels like a Québecois archetype — but Beatrice Zeilinger is an accomplished comedian who delivers a forceful, funny, and emotionally grounded piece of work. Interestingly, Stephanie Wong, who’s playing Isabelle, the grieving mom, delivers the least stylized characterization — and one of the most effective; Isabelle is, after all, closest to the tragedy.

But, as I said, even with all these strengths, my initial infatuation with Benevolence waned in its long middle passage because I lost interest in its moral question: at every step of the way, it seemed obvious to me what Gilles should do, the price for doing the right thing never seemed particularly high, and I got frustrated with him for not doing it.

Then came the revelation, the view from the other side of the valley. I won’t give it away, but I will say two things. One: Benevolence is presented as a struggle between right and wrong, but it’s really an invitation to feel compassion. Two: Charlie Gallant should get all the praise and every reward we can throw at him for revealing this so clearly in a performance that is also technically brilliant.

BENEVOLENCE By Fanny Britt. Translated by Leanna Brodie. Directed by Diane Brown. A Ruby Slippers Theatre production presented by Pacific Theatre. At Pacific Theatre on Friday, September 30. Running until October 15. Tickets


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