My favorite moment of Eternal Hydra occurred at the end of it. Coming out of Thursday's opening night performance at the Factory Theatre in Toronto, my writerly companion turned to me, her eyes wide, her voice trembling, trying to capture what she'd just seen.
"It's about authorship!" she exclaimed, her voice filled with wonder, "and ... theft! Identity! Writing! And ... art!"
She had good reason to be filled with wonder. The Crow's Theatre work is easily one of the finest works produced in Canada in more than a decade. Tackling the tough ideas around voice, ownership and originality of work, playwright Anton Piatigorsky has created a masterful tale that is part mystery, part supernatural romance, all drama, and unquestionably all-engrossing. The play touches on racism, sexism, classism, and the cutthroat worlds of academia and publishing, using the character of one Gordias Carbuncle (played by award-winning actor/director David Ferry) and intrepid researcher Vivian Ezra (Liisa Repo-Martell) to piece together the history of the sprawling, unfinished work known as Eternal Hydra.
I had the opportunity of interviewing David Ferry and Liisa Repo-Martell during their first full production of the work two years ago, at Toronto's Buddies In Bad Times Theatre. Their insights are as fresh and telling as ever -about both the work, and the nature of the hydra that is human creativity.
The hydra, for those without a handy copy of their Edith Hamilton about, is a multi-headed monster from Greek mythology. Hercules was charged with killing the beast, but found it daunting, because for every head he cut off, one (sometimes two) grew back in its place. Piatigorsky mines this myth for all it's worth, and then some, to fantastic, engrossing effect. Carbuncle's mammoth 99-chapter tome is hauled around by poor Vivian, and at one point, fellow writer Pauline Newbury (Cara Ricketts) tells her "it looks like it's ripping your shoulder off." No kidding. Vivian takes on an Atlas-like status, carrying Carbuncle's words, along with her own crushing perceptions of his supposed "genius" reputation, thus supporting an entire world that may, in fact, be fiction in and of itself.
The notion of what constitues that genius, as well as what makes for a good writer, are explored with deft, dramatic strokes. But this isn't some distant, heady dramatizing; instead, there's a zesty contemporary corollary with the online world that is unmistakable, especially as the play progresses. Eternal Hydra may be set in some non-descript 1980s publishing world (with flashbacks to Paris of the 30s) but its concerns are anything but antiquated.
Indeed, the work is filled with numerous references -to literature, history, various cultures and indeed, the mythology extant within the title -and yet none of it feels heavy-handed or pretentious. Perhaps that's because of the light touch of director Chris Abraham, who infuses this production with a good dollop of humor, jaunty timing, clever staging, and... oh yes, sex appeal.
Ferry's portrayal of Carbuncle is by turns sad, scary, sexy, and ever-scintillating; scenes with Cara Ricketts, as the writer Selma Thomas, particularly sizzle with the chimeric qualities of lust and revulsion. As the protective, priggish Vivian, Repo-Martell paints a lush if tragic portrait of a lonely, obsessive woman whose best friend may very well be a figment of her over-heated imagination. As publisher Randall Wellington, Sam Malkin offers a solid, sly portrait of corporate cynicism that gets turned on its head when he later portrays the same character's lusty father. It's a testament to both the talents of the actors as well as the show's designers that a deep vein of believable, tension-filled atmosphere is maintained, even as places, characters, and contexts shift and transform. John Thompson's set and lighting design, in particular, is elegant and minimal if deeply dramatic and affecting -kind of like the play itself.
Eternal Hydra is fast becoming one of my favorite contemporary plays because yes, it is smart, sexy, and funny, but it's also worldly, a quality I feel is sometimes sorely lacking in much modern Canadian drama. It's here, along with so much else, in droves. There's a reason this play won four -yes, four -Dora Mavor Moore Awards in 2009. It's great, and I'm waiting for the day it runs in New York City. Until then, run, walk, fly -do whatever it takes to get to the Factory -because take my word for it: you want to tangle with this hydra. You really do.
Photography by Robert Popkin.