By Maureen Hunter
At the Vancouver Playhouse
January 5 - 31, 1998
ATLANTIS RISES IN A SENSUAL AND MYSTICAL DRAMA
I must admit to having been quite jealous when my daughter and her friends flew off to Greece last summer to celebrate their graduation. The sea, the salty air, the blue skies and bistros on the sun-drenched islands. How I longed to join them!
Little did I know, but a little bit of Greece would come to Vancouver in the form of a compelling drama that blends a heady mix of sensuality, mysticism and classical themes. The play, Atlantis, marks the first time Canadian playwright Maureen Hunter has presented one of her plays for a Vancouver audience. And so while Vancouver experienced one of the coldest nights of this winter on January 8, a rapt audience was treated to a sizzling production ably carried through two acts by two finely cast actors.
The literary origin of the legend of Atlantis is through two of Plato's dialogues, the Timaeus and the Critias. According to Plato, the Atlanteans were defeated by the Greeks and shortly after, an earthquake caused Atlantis to sink beneath the ocean.
Maureen Hunter's Atlantis relates a tale of love and desire between Ben, a lost Canadian and a Greek woman, Mircea. Set on the contemporary island of Santorini, the real setting of the play is meant to be Altantis, the lost island that both characters long to inhabit.
If it's true that a performance has only two essential elements, a performer and an audience, then Atlantis is an example of that most intense kind of theatre production since the drama is told through intersecting monologues. The actors glide past each other without seeing, touching while unfolding their stories for the audience. It borders on a voyeuristic experience.
Tom McBeath, as Ben, plays the quintessential Canadian, quiet, kind, confused and dressed in endurable khaki shorts and hat. We never really grasp his true identity; he seems to have escaped to Santorini to live through a full-blown mid-life crisis and to rethink his future with a never revealed other woman. He wanders the island, invoking a humorous response from the islanders who are the hapless beneficiaries of his wooden carvings. They tolerate his existence, that is, until he meets Mircea, a beautiful Greek virgin, revered by the islanders for her mystical abilities.
McBeath succeeds at making us care about his predicament. He has a homely domesticity with questionable moral values, yet we still feel a sense of sorrow at his loss.
He longs for a place of innocence, purity and truth while hovering on the edge of extinction. He goes to Santorini because he had been dreaming of the isle since he was a child. (What Canadian doesn't dream of sun-soaked Greece?) McBeath's monologues were delivered with a strong yet quiet voice that carried to the corners of the Playhouse.
This play leaves a lot to the imagination, thanks to the acting ability of these two fine actors. They reveal their passion to the audience but they never directly speak to each other. Not that they even could due to their language differences. But the language of love is the same in every culture. Like a goddess, Mircea walks alone in her earthy beauty.
"Everywhere she goes, men fall silent, from fear or reverence" Ben tells us. Mircea is at first shy of the Canadian stranger, then finds his confusion and mismatched socks endearing. When they finally become lovers, her body, which she had kept for the gods, holds his memory so completely that she casts her pride and modesty aside and openly seeks him out.
One of the most powerful scenes comes when Mircea relates how the village men surround her and attempt to rape her now that she is a whore. "The foreigners, they get it all", the men yell at her. "You can have me, but first you must pray for me, just like I have prayed for you", she yells at them while looking each of them in the eye. A goddess repels a rape.
While passion and love may make humans divine, according to Mircea, these two lovers defy the gods and pay the price. For Ben, he is convinced of the banality and conventionality of his life "a sorry little rag of a thing." And although I couldn't see Mircea live out her days as a Toronto or Vancouver matron, her passion burned too hot, why is it that women who have sexual freedom usually come to a bad end? So it goes, I guess.
While both actors were beautifully cast, Gina Wilkinson as Mircea was mesmerizing as the earthy Greek, part madonna, part whore. You could feel her throb and ache with longing and joy. Atlantis marks her Playhouse debut although audiences have seen her perform in other parts of the country, including the Stratford festival. I am eager to see her act again to see the range of this fine actor's theatrical ability.
Glynis Leyshon, artistic director of the Playhouse, guides the two characters, set in a contemporary time, yet who embody a classic Greek myth emphasizing supernatural elements and obsessive passion. Her task is made easier (or perhaps more difficult?) by lighting designer Gerald King who changes the backdrop perhaps too often for my liking although the deep hued tones were beautiful. One could almost feel the sun and the closeness of the water as it reflected against the passionate lovers.
David Roberts has designed a beautiful set which cleverly rotates to contain a peasant home, a rocky cliff and an archaeological ruin that is revealed to be a minotaur or bull, images that have captivated Ben after meeting Mircea. Again, as with the lighting, it seemed as though the creators were overly pleased with their efforts and took glee in changing the set just for the sake of pushing the backstage buttons. I began to anticipate the rotation while missing the words.
John Mills-Cockell creates an original score for this production and it never threatens to overtake the drama but discretely maintains the flavor of Greek culture. Get into your seat early and you can enjoy the sounds of a Greek island while viewing the beautifully created scenery.
A dignified gentleman in front of me leaned across and spoke to his theatre mate: "Isn't she terrific? But Atlantis isn't Santorini, you know. I believe it's really the Canary Islands."
Little matter where the real Atlantis now rests, if anywhere at all. The Vancouver Playhouse offers a beautifully crafted play that relates a modern tale of two lovers on a precipice of love and passion transposed over classical Greek mythology.