Theatre Review: The sublime Syringa Tree

By Kyle Francis

A standing ovation has be- come a courtesy to the performers, like an effort sticker on a junior high report card. Too often theater-goes clamour out of their seats to applaud performances deserving no more than a gentle tossing of overripe vegetables. Despite the overused ovation, some acts truly deserve them and a crowds’ reactions are plain to see–whether it’s in the speed at which they rise or the fury of their hands coming together, there’s no mistaking an audience’s adoration for an outstanding play. For her presentation of The Syringa Tree, actress Meg Roe received one such veritable ovation.

The Syringa Tree follows the story of a six-year-old girl named Elizabeth and her family as they deal with the harsh realities of apartheid South Africa. Since the story is told through the eyes of a child, what isn’t said becomes more important than what is. All audiences see is how Elizabeth reacts, forcing the viewers to fill in the gaps with their own experience, inexorably tying them to the story. What’s remarkable about the play–and what makes Roe deserving of such acclaim–isn’t its unique perspective or well-paced plot but that The Syringa Tree was written for 23 emotionally charged characters. Roe plays every single one of them.

Roe is a woman in possession of enough uncanny talent and charisma to make her constant changes from character to character so seamless they could fool people into thinking she was multiple actors if only she had the luxury of a costume change. Audiences quickly fall in love with Elizabeth, hate the self-important Afrikaner clergy and hurt for those who fell to racist bullets and truncheons. When the play is over, the realization one woman tells a story so effectively while evoking such a broad range of emotions is a startling one.

If The Syringa Tree has one chink in its armor, it’s in writer Pamela Gein’s apparent loss of confidence in her own story somewhere in the last 10 to 15 minutes. Since no real resolution is reached, it’s hard not to feel like the ending of the story is superfluous and could be axed altogether. While it would be nice to see the ending tightened up, it does little to take away from the overall narrative, and detracts nothing from Roe’s astounding skill.

It would be easy to skip over a play with 23 roles played by one woman, saying it could never be done properly or dismissing it as too ambitious, but such an attitude would be selling it short. The Syringa Tree could easily be one of the best plays Alberta Theatre Projects puts on this year, and Roe’s outstanding performance is not to be missed. While the standing ovation may have been cheapened by over-enthusiastic theatre goers in the past, The Syringa Tree deserves every clap, every cheer and every little bit of praise it gets.

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