Fall on Your Knees is gripping, haunting, dazzling theatre.
Sixteen actors, seated at the back of the stage with four musicians, step out of the murk of the past to blaze as the tormented Piper family – a family of music, madness and malignance – in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s bestseller set in 1890s Cape Breton and jazz-age New York.
Beautifully and clearly adapted by award-winning, Halifax-based playwright Hannah Moscovitch and directed by Alisa Palmer, executive artistic director, National Theatre School, this project – 10 years in the making – is touring Canada and is now at Neptune Theatre in two parts.
Each part is three hours long but Be Not Afraid. This is chewy, totally involving, top-flight theatre. The time races by; the story is gut-wrenching; the imagination is on fire; and the tears flow.
It’s an experience in the power of theatre to tell a spellbinding story and an opportunity to see a huge cast conjure the harsh, cross-cultural world of Cape Breton with music supervisor and composer Sean Mayes’ fantastic, integral score.
MacDonald’s sweeping epic full of darkness and those who torment and are tormented is told with a beautiful theatrical restraint, a spare design, Leigh Ann Vardy’s exquisite lighting and a precise and passionate use of music to colour the characters and connect to the Lebanese, African-Nova Scotian, Jewish and Scottish cultures.
James Piper is a piano tuner who falls in love at the age of 19 with a 12-year-old Lebanese girl, who loves music and wants to go to New York. He has a demon, she has a dream; things go badly as the children are born.
The piano is a fixture in this home and the couple’s willful first-born, Kathleen, whose red hair is like “an angel on fire,” is destined to be an opera singer, a goal that fuels James.
This is a world where a grandfather can call his granddaughter a whore; a wash bucket is used for anything but the wash and a wife seen sharpening her scissors is not thinking about darning socks.
It’s a dramatic, gothic tale and the performers are excellent as an ensemble and as individual characters; most of them have excellent singing voices from Egyptian Canadian singer Maryem Tollar in haunting Lebanese melodies to Janelle Cooper belting out the blues in Harlem.
Kathleen, beautifully portrayed by Samantha Hill, is the first of three passionate women who light up the stage as larger-than-life creatures trying to tear a decent life out of a doomed destiny.
Hill has a good operatic voice and Kathleen dominates Part II as she experiences her harsh singing teacher, nightly escapes to jazz clubs and newfound love with Amaka Umeh in a moving performance as a conflicted, African American, lesbian piano player.
Part I belongs to Cape Breton, the Piper family and family and neighbours (Jewish neighbour Mrs. Luvovitz, played by Diane Flacks, is a wonderful, salty character hitting a gong of truth when she says all men break things.)
Deborah Hay is unforgettable as Kathleen’s younger sister Frances; Hay’s use of her spoken (and singing) voice and physicality — all cramped, fidgety hands and raw, skinny-legged dancing — are remarkable.
She is responsible for much of the comedy, but Hay as Frances can just as easily draw a tear in rapid and brief descents into pathos. Frances is always provoking her loving, strait-laced sister Mercedes from childhood until they grow old and Jenny L. Wright as Mercedes is great at fleshing out a stifled, frustrated woman who still burns with an inner fire.
Eva Foote portrays Lily, the third passionate Piper, in a lovely way, playful, full of life and not too saintly though Lily is defined as a young, innocent creature perhaps touched by God.
Tim Campbell as James Piper plays a nasty, complex man well; he is large and volatile and seems choked up by inner conflict. It’s impossible to believe him as a young, blond man wooing the girlish Materia, who also is not convincing as a 12-year-old but Cara Rebecca gives Materia more character and pathos as she grows up and her spirit is crushed.
A six-hour long play is as far from today’s norm of 90 minutes without intermission as one can get, and yet it belongs to today’s concept of binge-watching TV, where you immerse yourself into a story so deeply you don’t want it to end.
Five theatre companies — Neptune, The Grand, Canadian Stage, the National Arts Centre, Vita Brevis Arts — partnered to bring it to the stage with lead donors Margaret and David Fountain — thank you David and Margaret!
Tickets are at: https://www.neptunetheatre.com/box-office/fall-on-your-knees
There is a content warning for themes of incest, physical and sexual abuse and violence, partial nudity, graphic and sexual content, strong language, smoke and haze and e-cigarettes. Content may be triggering for some.
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