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article imageReview: 'Glenn' a complex, abstract tribute to iconic Toronto pianist Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Sep 4, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - From the peak of his career to his death in 1982, Glenn Gould was a baffling enigma as much as he was a classical-music superstar. As many artistic geniuses were, from Picasso to Salinger, the Toronto pianist could be eccentric and difficult.
Hypochondriac, socially awkward, contrarian, but also brilliant and innovative in his interpretations of Bach, Gould had a complex personality that attracted an unconventional, abstract kind of biography. Two works from the 1990s took on a fragmented approach: François Girard’s movie Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould and David Young’s 1992 play Glenn.
The latter — which Toronto theatre company Soulpepper is now staging — casts four actors as four distinct sides of Gould. You could cynically call it Four One-Man Shows about Glenn Gould, although the different Goulds do interact with each other at times and occasionally take on other characters to play against other Goulds. (Dismissing the various labels attached to him, one of the Goulds says at one point, “None of them properly identifies the real Glenn Gould.”)
Soulpepper’s new production of Glenn, which opened on Tuesday, is a visually and technically engrossing one. Directed by Canuck stage and screen veteran Diana Leblanc, it’s a feast for Gould fans, with visual and textual references galore and some beautifully choreographed set pieces. It may also be difficult or confusing for those who don’t know a great deal about Gould and don’t get all the references. (I count myself among the second group, which probably makes me a bad Canadian, or at least a bad Torontonian.) The second act tends to drag in places, often coming off as talky rather than theatrical, but the production as a whole has the feel of a labour of love.
We meet all four Glenns right at the beginning: Prodigy (Jeff Lillico), the child genius balancing his love of music with his crippling sensitivity; Performer (Mike Ross), the endlessly touring virtuoso; Perfectionist (Steven Sutcliffe), the irreverent outsider; and Puritan (Brent Carver), the popular image of the quirky, latter-day Gould. All four wear Gould’s trademark overcoat, cap and scarf at some point during the play, sometimes simultaneously. “Everybody up there [in Toronto] dresses like this in June,” Performer jokes about his outfit while in New York.
Leblanc takes Young’s text and stages it with a symphony’s worth of movement, lighting and sound effects; much of the time, it feels more like a lengthy dance piece than a play. Much of the credit should go to choreographer Monica Dotter, who helps to weave all the scenes and narratives together in a fluid, natural way that doesn’t call attention to the craftsmanship. Together, Leblanc, Dotter, lighting designer Michael Walton and sound man Paul Humphrey create a number of memorable moments: Prodigy on a childhood fishing trip, traumatized by a fish’s death; Performer before an endless standing ovation, pelted viciously with roses and forced into frenzied bowing until he collapses from exhaustion; all four Glenns “performing” together, impressionistically miming movements that resemble conducting more than playing piano; and Perfectionist and Performer acting as self-interrogators while chasing each other around a psychiatrist’s couch. There are a few intense moments along with some poignant and amusing ones; Young’s Gould is a man trapped in self-contradiction, both aided and victimized by his neurosis.
Acting-wise, Sutcliffe and Carver are the standouts. Sutcliffe juggles between accents and characters easily and acts as Gould’s main anchor to the real world, while Carver is a convincing embodiment of the middle-aged Gould we like to think we know. Ross and Lillico are less convincing, but far from bad, and the chemistry between all four actors works well.
Glenn is not designed for Gould newbies. If you’re an aficionado and have studied or read a lot about his life and work, you’ll likely find this production most satisfying. If you know the basics about Gould but not much more, you may appreciate the energy and quality of the production and learn something about Gould, while finding parts of it impenetrable or dull. A more conventional, straightforward biographical play or film would seem like the ideal introduction to Gould, but it would be too simplistic a depiction of his unique personality; there’d be no room for the fragmentation of his split selves that appears to be a necessity in an honest portrait.
“We invent what we need and call it truth,” one of the Goulds says in the play. Young and Leblanc needed to invent a lot to get as close to the real Gould as they could. Happily, most of it works.
Glenn runs at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts until October 1.
More about Theatre, glenn gould, Drama, soulpepper, Toronto
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