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article imageReview: Compelling drama ‘Liv Stein’ relentless in English-language debut Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Jan 28, 2017 in Entertainment
Toronto - “Liv Stein” is like an edgier “All About Eve”, set in the classical music world, with a climax that takes cues from “Saw”. If that description is hard to believe, it suits a play about how the desperate believe anything they want to be true.
And like Soulpepper’s The Last Wife, which also opened in Toronto this week, Georgian playwright Nino Haratischwili’s unnerving 2008 drama is perfectly suited for the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, but in a different way. Now that “alternative facts” has become the buzzword of the moment, Canadian Stage is blessed with good timing in mounting the English-language premiere of this story, which explores how a retired, famous classical pianist is manipulated by untruths that she uses to find happiness again.
It’s also a very strong production, directed by Matthew Jocelyn and highlighted by a tough, well-rounded performance by Leslie Hope (whom you may recognize from 24, Suits and other TV shows) in the title role. Translated from German by Birgit Schreyer Duarte, Liv Stein sizzles with dialogue that swerves between casual bluntness and unexpected poetry, with a plot that seems like a straightforward domestic drama at first – and then leaps to dark places you couldn’t have predicted.
Liv Stein, which opened on Thursday, begins with troubled Liv residing alone in her Art Deco-influenced house, still mourning the death of her teenage son, Henri, from cancer. She reluctantly socializes with ex-husband Emil (Geraint Wyn Davies), a hard-drinking conservatory instructor now married to a much younger woman, but her grief has made her misanthropic and bitter, resenting company in her house and refusing to play the piano again. “He was the only thing I ever created,” she says about her son, dismissing her musical talent as reproduction of Rachmaninoff’s creations.
Enter Lore (Sheila Ingabire-Isaro), a perky, brash, twenty-year-old piano student whom Emil sends to Liv for private instruction. Lore claims to have known Henri in boarding school, and the only reason Liv agrees to teach her is to hear Lore’s stories about her son as payment. But soon, they’re getting on so well that Liv decides to close her comeback concert by having Lore join her in a duet, playing Ravel, the student’s favourite composer.
But is Lore all she seems? Shadier things start happening beneath the surface when she secretly interacts with Emil and his outspoken wife, Helene (Nicola Correia-Damude). Everything Lore touches seems to invest Liv, Emil and Helene with a new lust for life – as symbolized by the flashy red dress Liv plans to wear at the concert – but questions linger about Lore’s motivations. Is she just using everybody to advance her career, or does she have a more sinister goal in mind? Or is it all for their own good? And exactly how well did she know Henri, anyway? All that’s obvious is that she’s nowhere near as innocent as she pretends.
Again, Liv Stein may begin conventionally, but it becomes more psychologically disturbing and even hits a gruesome point. Jocelyn carefully paces the play in a way that leads you into the abnormal before you realize you’re heading there, but also makes an unusual lighting choice that seems to foreshadow the change in tone: each transition between scenes is accompanied by a gradual fade-to-black, followed by a sudden burst of lights-on. It’s an artificial effect, but it works, or at least catches your attention. Jocelyn’s only major misstep in the whole production is in the introduction of an otherwise offstage character, whom the director has wandering through the audience reciting lines into a microphone; regardless of artistic intention, it’s distracting and seems out of place when the rest of the action is confined to the stage.
In her first stage role since the 1990s, Hope is excellent, imbuing the complex Liv with both a tired unwillingness to suffer fools and a pathetic vulnerability that Lore exploits. But Stratford Festival veteran Wyn Davies comes close to matching her at times, reminiscent of a modern Burl Ives, with moments of arrogance tempered with occasional good intentions. The two ex-lovers have more in common than Liv is willing to admit – “We’re a couple of useless old corpses waiting for something to bring us back to life,” as Emil says – and the chemistry between these actors makes that evident. Recent George Brown Theatre School grad Ingabire-Isaro is good as Lore, even if her relative inexperience shows at times; in fact, it sometimes helps, as it adds to Lore’s apparent youthful naiveté in the early scenes.
Unlike last year’s Das Ding, another German play that Duarte translated for CanStage, this is a bold, confident work that knows exactly what it’s about and how it wants to affect the audience. And that’s all the more impressive when you consider that Haratischwili was only twenty-five when she wrote it. Liv Stein may borrow a few old conventions in order to subvert and trash them, but it still stands up as an original work about grief, illusion and how gullible we allow ourselves to be when someone tells us what we want to believe. It’s a fine mirror for a time of political turbulence and unreliable media. See it.
Liv Stein runs at the Bluma Appel Theatre, at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, until February 12.
More about Theatre, Toronto, canadian stage, liv stein, nino haratischwili
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