Dixie Seatle and Diana Donnelly in Impromptu on Nuns’ Island(Photo: Yanick Macdonald)
Dixie Seatle and Diana Donnelly in Impromptu on Nuns’ Island
(Photo: Yanick Macdonald)
Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay is the premiere voice of French language theater in Canada, with such major works as Les Belles Soeurs, Hosanna, and For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again to his credit. Toronto's Tarragon Theatre has been presenting Tremblay's work to great acclaim for 30 years and has become known as the writer's English-speaking home.

So one would think that yet another collaboration between this renowned writer and this groundbreaking theater would be a recipe for success -- but, sadly, this is not the case. Tremblay's much anticipated Impromptu on Nuns' Island, which runs January 2 to February 2 at Tarragon, tries to say too much and ends up saying not very much at all.

As with much of Tremblay's work, the story plays out on two levels: it concerns the interplay of relationships and identities within a family but it is also a metaphor for Quebec Nationalism. Impromptu tells a tale involving opera diva Patricia Paquetti (Dixie Seatle), who has fled a flop in Paris that threatens her career; her daughter, Michelle (Diana Donnelly), who struggles to make her mother face reality; and Patricia's own mother, Estelle (Patricia Hamilton). Woven throughout is the counterpoint story of Richard (Robert Persichini), Patricia's accompanist, who seeks to define himself through his relationship with the diva.

That Patricia has left Montreal for the bright lights of Europe is the central conflict of the play. Both her mother and her daughter have chosen to make stage careers in Quebec, a choice that Patricia sees as hopelessly "provincial." Michelle points out that the diva always returns to Nuns' Island at crisis points and plays the diva in life as well as art.

The drama takes place in Patricia's gorgeous Montreal penthouse, and designer Guido Tondino's set receives applause when the lights come up; it's made up of an arresting series of grids and staircases and it serves the actors well. The sightlines in the intimate 200-seater Mainspace guarantee that there are no bad seats, and the levels showcase every line and action.

Tremblay calls his work an "impromptu" -- a theater form as old as Molière, in which ideas dominate the story -- and therein lies the essential problem of the play: It's all words, a heavy-handed vehicle for the author's political utterances. There is no pace, no purpose. For example, the stage business that director Diana Leblanc has given Michelle seems to consist entirely of "remove shoes," "remove socks," "put socks back on," "put shoes back on," and "exit." Oh yes, and "wander aimlessly." There seems no point to the blocking other than to show off the wonderful set. The generally sluggish nature of the production becomes all the more evident when Patricia Hamilton enters and livens up the joint. The actress makes sparks fly as grandmother Estelle, a bright light in an otherwise dim show.

To be sure, Impromptu must be seen in the context of Tremblay's earlier, breakthrough efforts. His first play, Les Belles-Soeurs, was theater of the Montreal streets, written in "joual" (the slang of the lower class Quebecois) and spoken harshly, even brutally. The play was as much about breaking down the Catholic Church's censorship activities in Quebec as anything else, and was widely heralded as a facet of the Nationalist Revolution. Tremblay's later works, Hosanna and La Duchesse de Langeais, were among the very first to portray openly gay characters in Canadian theater.

Impromptu on Nuns' Island is a play of regret, of ideals gone astray in the service of opportunism. Here, Tremblay's characters reminisce about Quebec's "Quiet Revolution" -- its ranks deserted now, save for a dedicated few. One of the play's lines is "If you would have only stayed home and concentrated on Quebec, all would be well" -- somewhat ironic coming from Tremblay, who lives almost year-round in Key West.

As political statement, Impromptu lacks focus; as family drama, it has potential that is never realized. If we are to sit through an evening of "the theater of ideas," then let those ideas be devastatingly important and excitingly presented. Seize us, shock us. We'll go home as exhilirated as a bunch of club kids after an all-night rave.