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vancouverplays review


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—John Murphy & Laara Sadiq. Photo: Tim Matheson

by Anton Piatigorsky
Touchstone Theatre
Studio 16, 1555 W. 8th Ave.
Nov. 1-10
604-689-0926 or

Getting its west coast premiere from Touchstone Theatre, Toronto playwright Anton Piatigorsky’s Eternal Hydra is a fascinating literary mystery in a solidly acted and rendered production. But I liked it less than I thought I would—or should.

The play takes us on a journey back through time, grappling superficially with issues of art, ethics and race, and ending with an apparent revelation that feels more like an anticlimax in a play-within-a-play-within-a-play structure that is intellectually top-heavy and overwritten.

In the contemporary plot, Laara Sadiq plays Vivian Ezra, a college literature prof who has come to possess the long-lost manuscript of a 99-part novel, Eternal Hydra, written by a pre-war James Joycean Irish-Jewish expatriate genius who called himself Gordias Carbuncle (John Murphy). Somehow, Vivian is possessed by and speaks to the ghost of Carbuncle, although this unnecessary device is pretty much abandoned midway through the script.

When Vivian takes the manuscript to publisher Randall Wellington Jr. (Andrew Wheeler), she bumps up against another one of Wellington’s authors, African American novelist Pauline Newberry (Cherissa Richards), whose new book is about expatriate African American writer Selma Thomas in Paris in the Thirties. Carbuncle is a minor character in her novel. In flashbacks Richards plays Thomas, who has a relationship with Carbuncle, and Wheeler plays Wellington’s wealthy father, who turns out to have been Carbuncle’s patron.

In the present, Vivian and Pauline quarrel over Pauline’s fictional portrait of Carbuncle, argue about whether or not he was a racist, and then, more portentously, whether he had actually plagiarized an unpublished story of Pauline’s for a chapter of his novel. This turns out to be—sort of—the crux of the play. And really, it seems much ado about very little.

But then the play takes a final turn, flashing us back into Pauline’s story, which is about an emancipated slave woman (Richards) in post Civil War New Orleans, who goes to work for a Creole shoemaker (Wheeler) and gets involved with a carpetbagging politician (Murphy). Suddenly a largely comic play about issues of art and authorship, revolving around a drunken stage-Irish writer (Murphy gives us Carbuncle in as original a way as it’s possible to play a stereotype), becomes a Very Serious play about Race. I didn’t buy it.

I certainly enjoyed the literate nature of the script and the clever interweaving of plot lines (until the end), the eminently watchable performances, and Katrina Dunn’s crisp direction on David Roberts’ handsome set. But ultimately, the play feels like a clever sleight-of-hand. I admire the technique but in the end there’s really nothing there.                                                           

Jerry Wasserman