Remounting a timeless
The Centaur Theatre presents the English version of the hit play Hosanna
By Barbara Ford
Michel Tremblay’s 1973 hit play, Hosanna, is on stage at Centaur Theatre until June 10. Not only is it considered one of Tremblay’s best in a series of plays he set along Montreal’s famous Main, this is the Tableau D’Hôte Theatre, META-winning remount. The production, its director Mike Payette, and both actors in the powerful two-hander, Eloi ArchamBaudoin and Davide Chiazzese, earned Montreal English Theatre Awards for the original 2015 production, fittingly presented at MainLine Theatre.
The first English production was presented in Toronto at Tarragon Theatre, in a translation by John Van Burek and the late Bill Glassco. Astonishingly, until 2015, Tremblay’s seminal smash was never presented in English by a professional theatre company in the playwright’s own hometown! Now it returns to Centaur, where many of the great Quebecois playwright’s stories have been produced over the years.
In researching his role of the title character of Hosanna, Eloi ArchamBaudoin discovered that he was related to the late Jean Archambault, who played the first Hosanna in the ’73 world premiere at Théâtre de Quat’Sous. Sadly, they never met and Jean passed away before he could see Eloi revive the role so convincingly.
… Eloi ArchamBaudoin and Davide Chiazzese, earned Montreal English Theatre Awards for the original 2015 production…
“I happened to see Michel (Tremblay) at a symphony concert and once I gathered the courage to go over and speak with him, I told him I had portrayed Hosanna in the English version. Of course he was aware of the production through his agent but when I told him about being related to Jean, he seemed very touched. He said that he had written the role specifically for him; that they were very close. Sadly, Jean died a few weeks before I auditioned for the part.”
The play takes place over the course of one evening after a cruel prank is played on hairdresser Claude Lemieux, a.k.a. Hosanna, at a Halloween party where he arrives in drag as Elizabeth Taylor’s film character, Cleopatra. The incident – which involves people that Hosanna thought were friends, including her biker boyfriend, Cuirette – launches her into a angst-ridden night of self-questioning and insight. Is the persona that Claude has created to get by in the world keeping him from knowing and being his true self?
The false impression that the play is too heavy for an evening’s entertainment couldn’t be farther from the truth. The biting double-entendres and witty rebukes, as only maestro Tremblay can concoct, fly through the air like heat-seeking missiles. Even after 45 years, the comedic element of Tremblay’s writing is still fresh and highly amusing.
But it’s also a very moving, personal story about the nature of love – of self and of another – and growing old. Both actors had never met before being cast, so they found ways to bond outside of the rehearsal hall to help them relate to each other quickly and easily as they worked. Eloi invited Davide to watch the 1974 film, Il était une fois dans l’Est, which was inspired by several Tremblay plays and contains both characters from Hosanna. Eloi said, “This time I thought I’d invite Davide to watch the Elizabeth Taylor version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf because it’s been said there are similarities between Edward Albee and Tremblay’s writing styles. I also think the character of Martha in Who’s Afraid (of Virginia Woolf) has a mouth on her that bears a strong resemblance to how Hosanna speaks at times in this play.”
Davide added that, “You can’t avoid bonding after doing this play; it’s just so personal. After we closed in 2015, Eloi and I stayed friends. We were much closer going into rehearsal this time and that transfers to our stage characters too.”
When asked about the differences between rehearsing a play from scratch and remounting it three years later, both relished the rare opportunity to revisit such intriguing characters to flesh them out even more. The first time around they had a short rehearsal period so they got the basic blocking out of the way in the first four days and then spent the rest of the time going through the play, delving as deeply into it as they could before “tech week”, when the focus becomes lighting and sound cues, etc. “Mike is so detail-oriented”, shared Davide. “We had lots of discussions about the play, the couple’s relationship and our characters. Mike is very open to talking but doesn’t say a lot so we had a lot of freedom to explore. I felt that he trusted our instincts and what we brought to the table.”
‘The biting double-entendres and witty rebukes… fly through the air like heat-seeking missiles. Even after 45 years, the comedic element of Tremblay’s writing is still fresh and highly amusing.’
Eloi said, “this time we still had a short preparation time but since we’ve done it before and had an archival video to guide us, we were ahead of the game from the start. I was thinking about my character almost constantly for about four weeks leading up to rehearsal.”
“I was rehearsing Cuirette during the day while I was playing Enzo at night in Successions (Centaur Theatre)”, added Davide. “I knew my character of Enzo well so I was looking forward to returning to Cuirette, who is such an interesting individual to explore. I’ve also grown a lot, personally and professionally, since we first did this play and I was curious to discover how that would enhance my interpretation.”
It’s not the first time that Davide has been rehearsing one play during the day and acting in another at night though, he confessed, never as intensely as this. He’s anxious to see how audiences that saw him as a stereotypical St. Leonard Italian guy in Successions, react to him as Cuirette. “I felt there were a lot of people in the Successions audiences who really identified with Enzo… might’ve even thought that Enzo is actually who I am as a person and Centaur just grabbed me off the streets of St. Leo and plunked me on stage to just act like I do in real life. I really hope those same people return to see this play, and that the experience of seeing such a dramatic change in me, opens a door on the conversation about what it means to be a man.”
Hosanna the drag queen undergoes a gradual de-construction over the course of the evening which, in a way, parallels the reverse of what Eloi the actor must do to create the character before going on stage. He explained that, “I’m not portraying a woman… not even close. Hosanna is a man in drag, so I had to learn how to put on drag queen make-up, which has nothing to do with everyday make-up application… trust me! I was taught by a professional but apply it myself every night, which takes about two hours. It’s great because there is a line in the play when Hosanna mentions it took her three hours to look just a little bit like something that might vaguely resemble, from a distance, Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. So it’s part of my process of getting into character that I do exactly what Hosanna does to transform from Claude Lemieux into Hosanna.”
It’s a challenge for any actor to be fully present on stage; even more so in a role that demands you be in every scene, holding that sacred space alone as you attempt to cast a thrall over the audience every night. Not only did the METAs Jury recognize both actors for their outstanding performances, so did local media. The Montreal Gazette said that, “Chiazzese got to show his actor’s mettle in the couple’s big blowout scene”, and of Eloi’s performance, CultMTL wrote, “His complete embodiment of this complex and captivating role shows elements of genius”.
‘… this version offers the same intimate setting integral to the story, and a gifted cast that has probed even more profoundly into these marginalized yet iconic Montreal characters…’
If you missed the 2015 production, take advantage of this second chance to see one of Tremblay’s timeless masterpieces. For those who saw the MainLine Theatre production, this version offers the same intimate setting integral to the story, and a gifted cast that has probed even more profoundly into these marginalized yet iconic Montreal characters to bring their riveting tale to life.
For an insider look at the play, Centaur is holding two talkbacks with the actors and director during the run: one following the Thursday, May 31 evening performance and a second one after the Sunday matinée on June 3. You can also ask questions and discuss anything related to Hosanna, Centaur, or theatre in general with Centaur’s Artistic and Executive Director, Eda Holmes, at the upcoming Saturday Salon following the June 2 matinée.
Tickets for Hosanna are available online at centaurtheatre.com
or through Centaur’s box office by calling 514-288-3161.
Read also: Successions adds to plays about inheritance
Barbara Ford Barbara has been involved with the performing arts in one way or another for most of her life, first on stage as a professional dancer/choreographer and latterly behind the scenes in marketing and communications. She now uses her knowledge and experience to promote the work of other artists.