belleville toronto

Company Theatre's Belleville a nail-biting drama

Amy Herzog's Belleville is frighteningly intense. So intense, even, that you may find yourself holding your breath and digging fingernails into your seat during one of the many unnerving scenes. These moments usually find their home in silence, which arrives after the tumult subsides.

The Company Theatre has a track record of piercing and provocative social dramas, and this latest offering is no different. Often difficult to watch due to its strong performances, Belleville features characters as fragile as they are volatile. While the narrative feels a bit heavy-handed, and the direction from Jason Byrne leaves little room for any sort of tenderness, a drama that penetrates as much as this one does is ultimately a drama that gets a lot right.

On the surface, the play has the trappings of a social drama about Millennial struggles with contemporary life, complete with privilege and ennui. It's seemingly one of those portraits of an over-coddled and over-medicated generation and the destruction they can end up causing. But it's dangerous to read Belleville in general terms. More correctly, it's a localized portrait of two individuals and their struggle with mental health and the resulting challenges it poses to the strength of their relationship.

Zack (Alan Hawco) and Abby (Christine Horne), a young couple that has left the United States to live in Paris, are on the verge of spending Christmas away from their families. When Abby finds Zack home in the afternoon, instead of at his job contributing to AIDS research, the foundation of the couple's relationship starts to crumble.

From the very first moment, Herzog drops her characters into situations of discovery. The search for, and uncovering of, new information drives the action forward and motivates the characters' erratic behaviour. The dialogue is crisp, full of suspect, and is laden with a history of conflict. The playwright layers on all manner of mental illness and deception in the build to a formidable climax. The consequence is that there's almost too much trauma to process here.

Byrne does a fine job giving colour to the fights and, more importantly, masters the silent stage actions that reveal each character's dark inner thoughts. One area that could have made the drama more complex was in finding a true tenderness, amidst the nicknames and body contact, that could have provided even more contrast to the severity of their division. Without it, both characters lack likable qualities.

Horne is a powerful force. She weaves in and out of Abby's vengeful passion and retreats to a far more complex headspace in moments of defeat and fear. Hawco, of Republic of Doyle fame, exploits the contradictions of his character to maximum effect. His portrait of delayed adulthood, on one hand charming and on the other maddening, hits the right note. Meanwhile, Alioune (Dalmar Abuzeid) and Amina (Marsha Regis), a Senegalese couple, are a fine foil to the married Americans featured in the drama.

Your reaction to Belleville might not be what you expect -- a lack of empathy, perhaps, or a complex response to the conclusion. What's important is not how you feel, but that the drama has inspired such a reaction in the first place.

Belleville, written by Amy Herzog and directed by Jason Byrne, runs at the Berkeley Street Theatre until May 4.

Photo courtesy Canadian Stage.

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