For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again

Michel Tremblay should be more famous in the States

SF Weekly

May 2002

I think Derek Walcott holds the title for Greatest North American Playwright Almost Never Produced in San Francisco, but Michel Tremblay runs a close second. Walcott is a Nobelist from the Caribbean, a grave black poet who perplexes people with his erudite references to ancient Greece. Tremblay is a mischievous gay man from Quebec who has been writing novels and plays in a tremendous flow of Canadian French since the early ’60s. Both men wrote their first successful plays in a provincial, French-inflected patois which has not prevented them from being performed around the world — in London, Paris, New York, even the Middle East. Walcott’s fishermen and poor folk speak a lethargic island pidgin; Michel Tremblay’s working-class characters (in Les Belles-Soeurs, for example) speak a coarse French-Canadian dialect called joual. Les Belles-Soeurs caused a scandal in Montreal when it premiered in 1966: People on the stage were simply not supposed to talk like that, and Canadian theater, by all accounts, has not been the same since.

San Francisco has the distinction of ignoring both men. No local troupe has performed a Walcott show in at least six years — although he’s one of the greatest living English writers — and our Tremblay drought stretches back to the ’80s. ACT has tried to relieve at least part of this problem with a performance of Tremblay’s homage to his mom, For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, which opened on Mother’s Day.

The show is deceptively simple. A narrator introduces us to his mother, at different phases in his life. She’s a garrulous, gossipy, working-class woman called Nana who dominates her son with long speeches. A program note sets all the action in “the Tremblay family apartment,” but Ralph Funicello’s stark set shows only the rear brick wall of a vacant stage. So Pleasure is a memory play, a dream play — something here isn’t quite real. The narrator opens with a long disclaimer about the show’s pretensions: “Tonight, no one will rage and cry: ‘My kingdom for a horse!’ … No one will die. Or, if someone must die, it will become a comic scene. There will be none of the usual theatrics. What you will see tonight is a very simple woman, a woman who will simply talk … I wanted the pleasure of seeing her again.”

Most of these lines are cleverly dishonest — in particular the one about “the usual theatrics,” because the whole play is, in fact, about theater. Marco Barricelli delivers the introduction as a calm, well-mannered host. Then he takes off his glasses and squeezes into a chair with his knees to his chin. Nana charges onstage. “Go to your room. Right this minute! How could you do such a thing? At your age! Ten years old, you should know better!” She launches into a funny aria about policemen and dead children, beside herself because the narrator has just been caught sliding chunks of ice under passing cars.

Tremblay wants to show where good theater comes from. The source in his case was an unsophisticated mother who had bad taste in books and wondered if actors on TV thought about her the way she sometimes thought about them. While she distracts the audience with her funny speeches we also watch the unassuming (and nameless) narrator come of age, taking object lessons in both wild invention and melodrama. The script — cleanly translated by Linda Gaboriau — embodies graceful playwriting.

ACT’s marquee attraction here is Olympia Dukakis, as Nana. She does a beautiful job with quieter scenes but lacks the energy to play a furious workhorse like Nana in top dudgeon. Her speech about the policeman is a perfect example. Instead of pitching into it at full strength she seems to pace herself, like a marathon runner, although the play is not even two hours long. The applause she receives after the opening salvo from Nana feels unearned. It’s only in the later, calmer scenes that she brings real charm and strength to the role, especially in an argument over a bad French novel. “You’ve been asking questions since the day you were born!” Nana says, with a straight face. “It’s getting so a person doesn’t know what to make up anymore.”

Barricelli plays the four or five incarnations of the narrator with a well-observed sense of what makes age ten different from sixteen, or sixteen different from twenty-one. In each consecutive age he’s bolder but not less vulnerable. Near the end, while Nana has cancer, he and Dukakis lapse into forced affection — Carey Perloff has directed them to hug at awkward moments — but the final scene of the play makes up for any flaws. It’s a high-spirited, utterly preposterous surprise, nicely acted, and driven by a clever bit of engineering by Funicello, the set designer.

ACT wanted to open a new version of a Gorki play, The Mother, on May 12, but those plans fell through: Pleasure was a last-minute Mother’s Day substitution. It may turn out to be the best show in ACT’s current season. I hope so. Maybe its success will encourage other companies to produce Tremblay, or even — mon dieu! — someone as obscure as Derek Walcott.

Michael Scott Moore

Politics

Idomeneo in Berlin

Remember the scandal over “Idomeneo” in Berlin? Remember how Islamists went mad when the Deutsche Oper decided to stage a controversial production of Mozart’s opera, unleashing a storm of violence?

By George!

Behind the frosted-glass office doors of an old building on New Montgomery Street in San Francisco you can find a barber shop, a bartending school, and a number of lawyers

Noah and the Dinosaurs

One rule of fundamentalists is that they hate to be interviewed. William Dembski doesn’t. He has a long face and glasses, wears knife-edged slacks and sober ties; he mixes fashion sense with a relaxed wonkishness that announces dedication to reason rather than the Bible-thumping fanaticism he’s been accused

Culture

I Have Landed

The title of Stephen Jay Gould’s twenty-second book on natural science borrows a phrase his grandfather scribbled in an English primer after he arrived at Ellis Island

For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again

I think Derek Walcott holds the title for Greatest North American Playwright Almost Never Produced in San Francisco, but Michel Tremblay runs a close second.

The Invention of Love

The last time one of Tom Stoppard’s plays had its American premiere in San Francisco, last spring, I wrote that it “wouldn’t be above Stoppard to spin a whole script around a minor and meaningless point of grammar.”

Pirates

Sending in the Marines

NATO, officially, is pleased to have pirates to fight. A mission against sea bandits in the Indian Ocean is not mission creep for the trans-Atlantic alliance, if you talk to its leaders

Battleships Off Somalia

Navies are expensive, and sending warships to Somalia is a hugely inefficient way to fight pirates, considering that the number of successful attacks off the Somali coast this year

How Do You Prosecute a Pirate?

The most eyebrow-raising aspect of Western counter-piracy missions off Somalia is how rarely they arrest a pirate.

Nazis

Ghosts of Dresden

The Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 destroyed the baroque center of what Pfc. Kurt Vonnegut called, in a letter home from Germany, “possibly the world’s most beautiful city.”

How to Film Nazis

The big surprise last week during the Berlin Film Festival was a disastrous premiere for a long-awaited feature film, Jud Süß — Rise and Fall, by a talented German director named Oskar Roehler.

Nazis on the Campaign Trail

Holger Apfel is a burly, fat-cheeked 35-year-old with glasses, given to wearing brown suits. He leads a delegation of the neo-Nazi NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany) in the German state parliament of Saxony.

Surfing

It’s Called Soccer

Americans live on what amounts to an enormous island, defended on two shores by the sea, and we’ve evolved a few marsupial traditions that nobody else understands.

One Hundred Years of Hanging Ten

The George Freeth memorial in Redondo Beach is a salt-bitten bust of a lifeguard in an old-fashioned swimming vest, gazing with the stoicism we expect from early surf heroes into the deep mysteries of a concrete parking garage.

Tilting at Turbines (in the Severn River)

The morning was clear and cold, with frost on the church steeple and the cemetery grass. I had a quick English breakfast at a white-cloth table, in my wetsuit, and drove to Newnham, a village on the Severn River in Gloucestershire, parking near the White Hart Inn.

Other Prose

Denis Johnson, Poet of the Fallen World

“I’m kinda like Ozzy Osbourne,” says Denis Johnson in a distracted moment, explaining that he might not remember to call me back. “My wife was just telling me that.”

This Will Kill That

“Here is one,” replied the archdeacon, opening the window of his cell; he pointed to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, whose two black towers, stone walls, and huge roof

The Curse of El Rojo

I’d packed the car lightly — a bag of clothes, a bag of cassette tapes, a backpack of books, a few essential tools.

Michael Scott Moore is a literary journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist and Popmatters. He was kidnapped in 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage for two and a half years. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, is out now from HarperCollins.

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The men from the Naham 3 are all friends of mine — a crew of 26 sailors from southeast Asia who worked on a tuna long-liner flagged in Oman but owned by a company in Taiwan, which abandoned them after Somali pirates hijacked the ship in 2012.

While I was in Somalia a man called Geoff Carter wrote about a picture of Indian men surfing on stand-up boards around 1800 off Chennai, which altered the known history of surfing a bit, even though the picture was hiding in plain sight at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Some people have asked about the Somalia memoir. It’s right on schedule, I promise, but it won’t be out for at least another year. It’s been revised in full, twice (see above), and it’ll need a few more revisions before we get anywhere. Old-fashioned authorship. July, 2018?

A version of what happened in Somalia is available as a Long Read at The Guardian, and, in somewhat shorter form, for German readers, in Der Spiegel. It’s not even near complete. Enormous parts of the story have been left untold.

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