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The Red Priest (Eight Ways to Say Goodbye): intelligent and moving

by | Nov 21, 2020 | Review | 1 comment

publicity photo for The Red Priest

(Photo of Steve James and Tracy Jennisson by Nancy Caldwell)

The Red Priest (Eight Ways to Say Goodbye) is a smart script and, in this United Players production, it’s being performed by smart actors.

Playwright Mieko Ouchi’s text is about a fictional relationship between Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi and the wife of one of France’s most powerful noblemen. The script identifies this character only as Woman. Her husband has bet the King of France that Vivaldi can teach her how to play the violin in six weeks — at the end of which time, she will perform for the French court.

Pleasingly, the text itself is musical in its construction. In a series of asides, both characters offer lists of eight ways to say goodbye — so, as in a lot of compositions, there’s a theme followed by variations. Those variations reveal the characters’ inner lives: their decision-making processes, their options, their strategies.

Both characters have things they want to escape. In his past, Vivaldi wanted to flee the drudgery of teaching orphan girls how to sing and play instruments. Now, on the other side of fame, he yearns to escape the treadmill of chasing commissions and amusing aristocrats — but he’s afraid of giving up his notoriety and falling into penury. He’s trapped.

As her label implies, Woman has fewer options. Married to an older man she doesn’t respect, she fears he’s looking for an excuse to ditch her and take a mistress. If she continues to commit to her marriage, she’ll die a spiritual death. If she leaves, she will hasten a concrete one.

Ornately polite but frosty at first, over the course of their lessons, Vivaldi and Woman begin to recognize their common ground. She starts to really hear music. And he comes to appreciate the musicality of the gardens she has created

This is all pretty talky stuff — and, for me, the attached sense of alienation was compounded by a couple of factors.

I watched a videotaped version of the theatrical performance and, as it usually does, the translation created a barrier. The actors (Steve James and Tracy Jennisson) were projecting, which is appropriate for the stage they were on but not for the video I was watching.

Also, under Keltie Forsyth’s direction, James and Jennisson had a tendency to ride on top of the text. I could tell that their minds were always actively, intelligently engaged: I always believed they knew exactly what they were talking about — and that kept me onboard.  But I craved more emotional and musical — tonal, rhythmic — variety. I wanted the characters’ interior lives to have more impact on how they expressed themselves so that I could get a clearer sense of the progression in their relationship. My hunch is that that would have lent the production more narrative tension.

That said, when the crack in Woman’s façade came, it was moving in its depth and subtlety. And the ending, which I won’t give away, brought me to tears.

The costumes by Kate Carr are handsome — especially Vivaldi’s shiny black ensemble.

I wish set designer Jane Li had had the confidence — if that’s what’s required — to be less literal. I’ve had my fill of cardboard cylinders painted to look like marble columns, at least for this lifetime. Don’t get me wrong: Li’s set is fine as far as it goes; I just wish more directors and designers would risk going more abstract.

It’s not perfect but I’m grateful for this production, especially for the director’s and actors’ engagement with the inner workings of Ouchi’s script. The day after seeing it, I’m still savouring The Red Priest.

THE RED PRIEST (EIGHT WAYS TO SAY GOODBYE) By Mieko Ouchi. Directed by Keltie Forsyth. A United Players production performed at the Jericho Arts Centre. Viewed on Vimeo on Friday, November 20. Available on Vimeo until December 6. Tickets for digital viewing. Tickets for live performances on December 10 to 13 may be available depending on Covid restrictions.


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1 Comment

  1. Clayton Jevne

    Just read this now – what a considerate review. Mr. Thomas owns his own perspective, and so leaves room for the reader to weigh it against their own personal preferences and tastes.


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