Is the Cleopatra-impersonator at the heart of Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna a trans icon or the queen of denial? A groundbreaking creation when she first appeared in 1973, Hosanna, with her painful coming to terms with the man under the women’s clothing, might be seen as problematic in the light of 21st century queer politics. But Hosanna herself isn’t meant to stand in as a catch-all representative of all facets of the transgendered – she’s a specific character who revels in a destructively self-deluding fantasy of playing Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra in a camp Hollywood epic. And, as is shown by this production from Tableau d’Hote (remarkably, the first time it’s been played in English in Montreal), there’s more to Tremblay’s play than the story of a “cheap transvestite” learning the price of playing dress-up.
Hosanna, a hairdresser by day and an acid-tongued drag queen by night, shares a hell-hole apartment somewhere on Plaza St Hubert with her going-to-seed biker boyfriend, Cuirette.
Their apartment reeks of cheap perfume, and the garish neon sign of a pharmacy blinks on and off like a throbbing migraine. Hosanna is returning from a Halloween party where some initially undefined humiliation at the hands of her trans sisterhood has befallen her, and in which Cuirette seems to have been complicit. This is the spark for a round of mutual recrimination, Hosanna lashing out with her well-sharpened claws, Cuirette responding with brutal, Stanley Kowalski-esque swagger.
So far so entertaining, with both actors (Eloi Archambaudoin as Hosanna, David Chiazzese as Cuirette) sparking off each other beautifully. But it’s when Hosanna is alone, Cuirette having stormed off on his motorcycle in moody search of more appreciative company, that Tremblay brings in the almost liturgical sense of theatricality for which he’s celebrated.
True, Hosanna’s lengthy, soul-exposing confessional appears, on the face of it, to be little more than an extended whinge that she’s getting old and doesn’t look like a glam movie diva after all. But the speech also functions as a kind of corrosive mea culpa, stripping away the gaudy layers of Hosanna’s delusion. When Cuirette later returns, the stage is set for an affecting denouement in which these two lost souls face each other and themselves, naked in every sense of the word.
It’s a tricky proposition, going from the stark naturalism of the first half to the strange ritualism of the second. Director Mike Payette and his design team manage the transition well, heightening the Dante-esque atmosphere of the apartment, the red glow of the neon going all infernal, with weird, other-worldly rumbles bleeding in like a David Lynch soundtrack. It doesn’t quite solve the incongruousness of that long, long monologue. (Is Hosanna delivering it to herself, or to us through the fourth wall? It doesn’t seem to land decisively on either side.) But this and some arguably stale sexual politics aside, Hosanna still stands up as a fiercely entertaining hell-is-other-people tragi-comedy, helped immeasurably by two committed performances that capture the lacerating wit, suffocating tackiness and ultimately great wells of compassion in this vintage Tremblay.
Hosanna plays at Mainline Theatre to March 29
Jim Burke is a playwright and arts journalist originally from England, now resident in Montreal. Among his plays are Cornered and an adaptation of Moby Dick. He has written plays for BBC radio. In England, he was Theatre Editor for the arts and lifestyle magazine City Life. Jim currently teaches creative writing at Dawson College’s Centre For Training and Development.