Theatre Passe Muraille’s latest 90-minute mainstage offering tells a long life story in the short moments that precede death. A reverential bio-play about a man of both god and science, playwright Adam Seybold’s The De Chardin Project tells a fascinating story but makes its subject far less fascinating than the world he observes and changes. A steady Cyrus Lane plays the titular Pierre Teilhard de Chardin almost as a blank slate- he has no accent, no age, no distinguishing characteristics at all, really. As the play skips nonlinearly between vignettes from his life and scenes from whatever lays beyond it, de Chardin appears sometimes moved but never changed, even as his beautifully crafted words reveal an astounding intellect discovering new possibilities in nearly every moment. The world this uninviting hero populates is embodied by one of Canada’s greatest and most versatile performers- the incomparable Maev Beaty and, as such, it is thrilling, complex and full of infinite variety. Beaty is everyone and everything in this play- a guide from “beyond”, a young boy, an interrogator, de Chardin’s would-be life partner (a character bizarrely far more fleshed out than de Chardin himself) and so many more, each with their own voice, physicality and inner life.
Not to be reductive but, in the world of young adult books and supernatural romance, there is a depressingly common practice of writing protagonists of very little note. The reasoning, at least theoretically, is that the reader will place themselves into the story in the protagonist’s position and therefore experience the story more immersively (something that becomes more of a challenge the more unique the character is on paper). It almost feels like that’s what director Alan Dilworth is doing here, instructing his very good leading actor to not really do anything while creating a world around him that’s well worth living in, so that we might place ourselves in de Chardin’s shoes. By the same token, the physical space of the show is almost more enrapturing than the play itself (save Beaty’s performance). Lorenzo Savoini’s thoughtful and beautiful lighting design ambitiously changes with each new vignette, perfectly morphing the simple but clever and visually engaging space of his cubic, trap door-filled set. Thomas Ryder Payne, who has made an indelible stamp on Toronto theatre this year, complements Savoini brilliantly with a bold and engulfing sound design.
Seybold’s play suggests an interesting man with interesting views on the world (marrying both the scientific and religious) but Theatre Passe Muraille’s production seems to argue that it’s the world he’s studying that’s of far greater interest, presenting de Chardin, for better or for worse, less as a subject of biography and more as a lens through which to see the beautiful and varied world. It’s an intriguing angle, though it left me wondering why we couldn’t have it both ways.