"That is my very favourite Canadian play."
These words were spoken by a friend Friday night as we came out of I, Claudia, Kristen Thomson's one-woman tour-de-force, now on at the Young Centre in Toronto.
The work is a mix of mask, mime, comedy, tragedy, and Thomson's biography. It concerns the experience of one Claudia, who is, she tells us, "twelve-and-three-quarters" and struggling with her parents' divorce. She hides in her school's basement, where she makes up a fantastical world of her own devising, sharing her worries, torments, and passing thoughts with us (not to mention her ill-fated science project). Thomson plays Claudia with a big-cheeked mask, red beret, and uniform kilt; her body language is awkward and gawky, but she imbues Claudia with a bright, shining light of hope and playfulness. Thomson also takes on the roles of the school's "Bolgonian" caretaker, Claudia's paternal grandfather, and Tina, Claudia's new stepmom. Each is given their own unique masque -the grandfather's, long and wizened, the stepmom's tight and over-make-up'd. Again, Thomson fully inhabits each of the characters physically, giving each their own unique life.
Developed with Chris Abraham of the lauded Crow's Theatre and first performed in 2001, the work is breathtaking in its emotional scope and creative presentation. With a small gesture -a turn of the head, a shrug of the shoulder -Thomson suggests a world of hurt, loss, and yes, hope within the lives of the characters she portrays. We're never in doubt about the fact that Thomson is taking us on a purposely-theatrical journey, changing between scenes and bopping to musical interludes, showing the funny, strange, sad lives of a diverse group of people and the common threads of humanity that bind them. The intimate, twisted relationships between children and parents are deftly, delicately explored, with great care and grace. You get the feeling when Thomson's janitor refers to a son who lives in the United States, then quickly adds, "we won't talk about that..." that there's a mountain of hurt there that doesn't require explanation.
Since the work is based on real events in Thomson's past, I was curious to see how Claudia might represent her own hurt little girl within; it's a personal theme I found myself relating to, on several deep levels, more than once through the evening. As a child of divorce myself, the feelings of abandonment, rage, loss, and confusion were easily recognizable. To publicly share one's hurt over such events is incredible; to translate that into a piece of theatre, and in so doing, allow for a possible healing, is miraculous.
I, Claudia might just be my own favourite Canadian work too.