My quarrelsome companion and I argued during the intermission of Michael Mackenzie’s Geometry in Venice. She claimed I was only interested in comparing the play with Henry James’ novella, on which it is based, and that this was ‘boring’. I claimed she was drunk. Of course, I was completely correct.
Later, her slurred invectives gave me an idea: I was only able to focus on the play – a good play and a great example of literary adaptation – because the Segal Centre’s production was so fine.
It was an elegant evening lacking any narcissistic gestures in direction. The stage was cleverly and calmly treated, the Moreens’ rooms a Cartesian space that extended to the limits of their finances. Elliott Larson was a little gentleman as the precocious Morgan, very poised and adult. Graham Cuthbertson played his tutor Pemberton with an infectious idealism, and Allegra Fulton was magnificent as Mrs. Moreen. Aidan Devine beat out a brash and babbling Mr. Moreen, which is unfortunately how he is written, while Susanna Fournier was explosive as his daughter Amy, and Damien Atkins was clammy and unpleasantly polite as Henry James. They were an ideal cast, and they were treated very well by the ingenious, active lighting of Luc Prairie, and Antoine Bédard’s original score.
After the curtain and the mandatory Canadian attempt at a standing ovation, I left my companion with a litre of water and spoke with playwright Michael Mackenzie. I wanted to know why he had inserted Henry James into Henry James’ novella. He told me that he felt “James was unfair to the family, and I wanted to get revenge on him.” James does come out badly in the play; he is fey and vaguely obnoxious, dismissed by Morgan and damned by Mrs. Moreen, and his lines are all quotations from The Pupil and its preface.
Geometry suggests that the great novelist of society was a social vampire not unlike the Moreens. Did he record their suffering, or the suffering of a similar family, and do nothing about it? The Pupil as told by Pemberton gives a strong sense of his intense relationship to Morgan but leaves the rest of the family sketchy; Mackenzie develops them (except for the achingly lovely first scene of act two), particularly Mrs. Moreen and her desperate-to-marry daughter Amy, sidelined by her brother’s frail genius. Though it is mostly to their advantage (and definitely to ours), there are some questionable inventions, such Mrs. Moreen’s calculating use of sex to keep Pemberton. In the novella Pemberton stays solely because he loves Morgan.
Writing the Moreen family as mannequins with manners, people who kept up appearances by always leaving the room, gave them the potential for redemption in the mind of a forgiving reader. In his stage adaptation, Mackenzie has them plainly explain their situation and let down the façade. This works well to criticize Henry James, but it has other consequences; unaware, the Moreens might be eccentric, but self-conscious, they are just scoundrels. In this way, Geometry in Venice takes revenge on more than its target.
Geometry in Venice continues at the Segal Centre until February 14. Box office: 514-739-7944. For more information, go to the Segal Centre site.
Photo Credit: Randy Cole.