Theatre

If ‘Hosanna’ makes Monette a star, he’ll have no one to thank but himself

PETER HAY January 24 1977
Theatre

If ‘Hosanna’ makes Monette a star, he’ll have no one to thank but himself

PETER HAY January 24 1977

If ‘Hosanna’ makes Monette a star, he’ll have no one to thank but himself

Theatre

“If you care about the theatre and want to see the birth of a new star,” raved Bob Weiner in Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, “run to the theatre.” There were similar reviews in The New York Post (“phenomenal performance”) and by United Press International (“Monette is brilliant”), but despite the critical acclaim the Broadway production of Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna closed after three weeks. In the normal course of events that would have been the end of the play. But now. two years later, due to the persistence of the play’s star. Richard Monette, Hosanna is sweeping Canada, playing to sold-out houses in Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto. Tremblay's political parable about Quebec as a cultural transvestite is a palpable hit and Monette is experiencing the birth pangs of Canadian stardom.

Hosanna is as Canadian as Anne Oj Green Gables, though some may find the comparison sacrilegious. The play is about a homosexual couple: Hosanna is a FrenchCanadian drag queen who has built a personna for herself around the image of Elizabeth Taylor. “She” comes to a Halloween party dressed in the gold lamé of Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra only to be confronted by a roomful of drag queens also dressed as Taylor playing Cleopatra. This cruel joke catalyzes Hosanna and her mate and forces them to shed layers of masquerades until they are left only with themselves, unadorned and naked. “In New York the problem was that the main theme of identity had no meaning for Americans,” says Bill Glassco, who directed the play both at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, on Broadway and at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, “and that's why Hosanna works even better in English Canada than in Quebec: it plays on our envy of French Canadians and of their sense of identity”.

Another reason may be much simpler: the sensational performance of Richard Monette, whose modulated Québécois accent and exaggerated feminine gestures delight and shock audiences for the entire two hours he is on stage. It is a tour de force rarely seen on Canada’s major subsidized stages. As it is. Hosanna has been performed only in smaller, so-called experimental theatres.

Monette. however, is no stranger to larger stages. A hungry young actor, he first tackled Hamlet (which, with Hosanna, are his favorite roles) at 19 with Toronto’s Crest Theatre in 1964—to devastating reviews. Last summer he completed the cycle as one of two Hamlets at Stratford, aban-

doning the traditional mid-Atlantic accent for his own slight but distinctively FrenchCanadian voice. This time the critics and audiences approved. Monette credits Hamlet with helping to deepen his interpretation of Hosanna. At one of the earlv Stratford rehearsals director Robin Phillips asked each actor what the play was about. Monette replied: “Hamlet is about me.”

A simple answer but one that Monette spent 12 years of hard work and wandering to develop. Born in Montreal to Frenchand Italian-Canadian parents, he was educated and got his dramatic training in English-language schools run by Jesuits. After acting with shoestring dramatic companies in the mid-Sixties (“I helped close three theatres in Toronto”). Monette was readv for something more. By 1970 he was playing bit parts at Stratford, but when an inexperienced 24-year-old English actor was imported to play Romeo. Monette left for England in pique. (Ironically, next summer he will be playing Romeo at the same Stratford he left.)

The British stage gave him a chance not only in classical roles but also in plays by Genet, the original production of Oh Calcutta and the lead in the aptly titled The Dirtiest Show In Town. Such nude shows also helped later with Hosanna which is one long psychological and physical striptease. Although he found the continuous

work opportunities and creative climate of London seductive. Monette returned to Canada in 1974 with his Oh Calcutta costar. Domini Blythe. “I found out 1 am not English and my sensibilities are not American. 1 have to do it here, with my own voice and mv own art.”

It’s this sentiment that has nudged Monette in the direction of an entrepreneur in the tradition of 19th-century actor-managers. Ambitious and visibly impatient with sitting and waiting for phone calls from directors, he was largely responsible for the current tour and became Hosanna's co-producer in Toronto after the Tarragon Theatre withdrew, preferring to use its meagre funds for new productions. As a producer he can give himself star billing and choose plays that provide him with suitable roles. Though there is talk of producing Hosanna in London, he is looking for other challenges. Hosanna has given him a vehicle and an opportunity to explore his own identity problem as a French Canadian educated in English-language schools and making a living in Englishlanguage theatres. But Monette, now split from Blythe, also knows identification with one role can go too far. He is wary of prurient curiosity about his reasons for playing Hosanna. “I’m no more a drag queen than I am a Danish prince in real life,” he says, smiling ambivalently. “I am an actor.”

Even more than that. Monette is a man chasing stardom, hoping to discredit the belief that Canadian stars are not made; they immigrate. “Richard is simply asking for the recognition that we all want in our own country.” says Bill Glassco. "But we don't ask and that's the reason for all the rage inside. He is good enough to demand it.” PETER HAY