My smart, charismatic mom, who had always feared dementia, sank deeper and deeper into it for the last six years of her life. She’s gone. And now I fear dementia. So, when I was keeping notes as I watched The Father and I thought, “Fuck! Did I get that character’s name right? Am I going to be able to follow this?” I felt panic.
I think that’s pretty much what playwright Florian Zeller intended.
The central figure in The Father is a patriarch named André who appears to have Alzheimer’s — although he suspects it’s his daughter Anne who’s experiencing memory problems: their versions of reality don’t match, after all, and, like most of us, André is arrogant about the accuracy of his perceptions.
As André struggles to maintain coherence, so do we in the audience. Double-casting, contradictory information, and disappearing furniture allow us to experience the world as André does. What does Anne really look like? Is she married or not? And where the fuck is he? Still in his flat in Paris or in some more threatening, unknown environment?
This is a killer device because it’s what we do in the theatre all the time: our job as audience members is to make sense of the story. And it’s what we do in life: we are constantly building and adjusting realities. The Father isn’t just about dementia; it’s about the elusiveness of meaning.
And Zeller’s script, which was translated from French by Christopher Hampton, is funny sometimes. Much to Anne’s surprise, André tells a potential caregiver that he was a dancer in his working life, for instance. “Tap dancing was my specialty.”
Under Mindy Parfitt’s direction, the show looks fantastic. Amir Ofek, who may be best set designer in town, makes the small playing area in the Vancity Culture Lab feel remarkably spacious, giving us the subtly paneled white walls of a vintage Paris apartment and populating it with sleek modern furniture. The blank walls become a metaphor for the blank canvas of consciousness. Itai Erdal’s lighting plays across these surfaces — often in the form of shadows from mullioned windowpanes. The result is powerfully atmospheric and, in a world in which reality is elusive, atmosphere becomes a dominant force.
Clothed by costumer Jessie Oostergo, the characters are so handsomely Parisian I’d almost be willing to lose my marbles to get my hands on their wardrobes: Anne’s tailored trousers, her husband’s double-strapped shoes. Even André’s grey-and-white pyjamas are classically tasteful.
And the performances are solid. Jillian Fargey’s Anne is conservative, brittle — and tender. Watching this Anne try to maintain her composure as her father loses his, you can’t help but feel her struggle in your own chest — and admire the actor’s subtlety. I was also particularly moved by Emma Slipp’s work. Again, it’s about nuance: her character’s shock and immediate attempt to cover it up, for instance, when André fails to recognize her for the first time.
Kevin McNulty’s André is many things: charismatic, condescending, perceptive, and wily. It’s an impressive portrait. I have a hunch the characterization might even be more effective if it contained more commanding notes. Anne talks about how much authority André once had, about how she feared him when she was a child. I longed for a glimpse of that scale, that fearsomeness — just as I would have welcomed more arrogant force from Anne’s partner, as performed by Stephen Lobo. Lobo is authentically present but, as written, there’s a vicious selfishness to the character that Lobo doesn’t show us. In a similar role, Kayvon Khoshkam does.
Owen Belton’s slippery sound design starts off beautifully. My one remaining quibble is that it’s overstated sometimes: I didn’t need ominous music to tell me that one of Anne’s monologues is unsettling, for instance.
But I’m engaging in a rare kind of luxury here: I’m nitpicking about an extremely handsome production of a literate script. This mounting of The Father marks the debut of a new company called The Search Party that director Parfitt will lead. Script selections like this and productions like this are causes for hope and celebration.
The Father, specifically, is also a conduit of grief. Its conclusion left me undone.
THE FATHER By Florian Zeller. Translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Mindy Parfitt. Presented by The Search Party at the Vancity Culture Lab on Thursday, November 21. Continues until November 30. Tickets.
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