Review by Kyle Poluyko, Photo by Matthew Goertz
The Book of Everything, a play by Richard Tulloch based upon Guus Kuijer’s 2004 award-winning novel, had its Canadian premiere at Magnus Theatre on Monday night as the production began previews before a December 3 gala opening.
Set in 1951 post-Nazi Amsterdam, The Book of Everything is the tale of Thomas Klopper (Joshua Stodart), a nine-year old boy (nearly 10) with a bright and spirited imagination. He sees things only he can, such as invisible hail that “ripped all the leaves from the trees”, tropical fish – guppies, to be specific – in the canal, a plague of green frogs, and even Jesus. Thomas lives with his maladjusted family of four. The father, Abel (Lawrence Cotton), is an abusive Christian fundamentalist prone to striking his wife Jannie (Viviana Zarrillo) and beating Thomas with a wooden spoon. Abel is a deeply religious man who fears embarrassment, particularly at the hands of Thomas’ precociousness. His sister, Margot (Jenny Weisz), has little regard for Thomas, though her respect for Thomas eventually grows. From all this, Thomas’s escapes into his Book of Everything, a diary in which he writes of his thoughts, hopes and dreams.
Stodart is charming in his youthful performance, refreshing and exuberant as he delves into Thomas’ childlike wonderment. Cotton’s Abel is stern and threatening, almost disturbing in his character’s severity. As the put upon and put down mother, Zarrillo easily evokes sympathy for her character as she hides her abuse though stands strong and courageously takes responsibility for her son’s foibles. Weisz’s Margot is quite and deliberately unlikable in the beginning but her climactic Act 2 confrontation with her father is riveting.
Jo-Ann Waytowich’s authority on the stage is sublime in her portrayal of Mrs. Van Amersfoort, said to be a witch and tormented for such, but is infact a survivor of the Nazi resistance who helps Thomas overcome his fears. As Jesus to whom Thomas speaks, Danny Johnson, who has appeared in a number of Magnus productions, finally delivers a good characterization lacking awkwardness that has plagued his past performances. Thomas gains guidance and strength through often comedic conversations with the holy being. Rounding out the cast are Lila Cano as a rebellious, bike-riding Auntie Pie who bolsters Thomas, and Megan Carty as Eliza, the object of Thomas’ affections. Carty’s performance is tenacious, energetic and sweet, and her pairing with Stodart is an ideal match.
Without patronising its audience, The Book of Everything is a story of bravery, love and making friendships in the face of fear and ignorance. It does not shy from the complexity of its tense themes. There is plenty of humour in the script with quick, intelligent dialogue and even moments where the fourth wall is broken as cast members comment to audience members about humorous absurdities.
Bruce Repei’s bright, colourful, and slightly cartoonish set design stands in a gently caricaturish way, a rich extension of Thomas’s imagination. Adam Parboosingh’s vivid and radiant lighting design raise and reinforce both Repei’s set design and Thomas’ whimsical adventures. Strong direction from Mario Crudo keeps the imaginative and anti-violence themes smartly balanced and with generous humour. The themes in The Book of Everything bare relevance in today’s society as patriarchal roles still – and sadly – require profound challenging.
Magnus Theatre’s The Book of Everything began previews Monday, November 30. It opens Thursday, December 3 and runs through December 12. For more information call the Box Office at 345-5552 or visit magnus.on.ca