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Unwashed Grape Presents "The Assumption of Empire"

Posted by Stefan / March 6, 2009

There’s something about representations of university professors that make the project of post-secondary learning appear childish and banal. What seems like gripping insight the first time you hear it is transformed into trivia when it becomes apparent that, year after year, hundreds of bored students hear the same tired voice retell the same cocktail party anecdote about some neglected theory, scholar, or event. Similarly, if it is better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all, it is unclear whether this applies when love checks out and the relationship is stuck with the bill. Playwright Ann Lambert connects the twin disappointments of learning and love in her carefully written and well-directed offering, The Assumption of Empire.

At its core, the play is about the past’s tenacious ability to implicate itself in the present. Disillusionment lurks behind every reckless endeavour, whether in furtherance of myopic desire, or equally short-sighted stability. It prompts a set of surprisingly bleak conclusions, postulating the impossibility of enduring passion for ideas or people. Even children cannot offer repose, as Sophie Wiseman’s daughter becomes a proxy for every possible injustice, real or perceived. What’s a dog? Something that’s not being walked. A husband? A barometer of unhappiness, a billboard advertising compromise. Unpublished manuscripts are tombstones for unrealized ambitions. Contempt moves in both directions, as the precocious Eli Wiseman deals the play’s harshest blow: “ Face it mom, you’re a lady who lunches.”

Lambert and director Paul Hawkins effectively capture and aptly convey the awkwardness of re-entering your own past. Peeling back the layers of affectations acquired throughout a revolving youth can lead to the most fragile kind of nakedness. “Would the real Sophie Wiseman please stand up?”, an oft-repeated refrain in the play, is as much a challenge as it is a command. Reality, the product of ongoing negotiation and self-selection, is revealed to be just another choice we make. The principle consequence of perpetual strides toward actualization is the tastelessness of the everyday. Distracted and exhausted, the bored housewife serves her family an onion for dinner.

Despite its lofty theme, there’s something of the “We Didn’t Start the Fire” about the play. It is generally light, enjoyable, and accessible – no prerequisites needed. Lambert simply grounds her text in staccato snapshots of the last decades’ major events, alluding to existentialism and letting the story tell itself. While the technique facilitates temporal jaunts without engendering audience confusion, it occasionally seems forced or reductionist. Fortunately, sentimentalization is neatly avoided. The Montreal Massacre becomes a distraction, the tragedy at Dawson College a bit of gossip. Turning tides are signposts flagging early departures from fleeting comforts.

A night at the theatre can sometimes be draining. Humanity’s less admirable traits are often the focus, and watching them under an unforgiving microscope is not always pleasant. The Assumption of Empire retains a marked light-heartedness that keeps audiences engaged and elicits genuine laughter. Its snappy dialogue is (almost) never trite or self-important, with excellent pacing that seldom drags. No character flirts with one-dimensionality. It’s an approximation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf for people who would like to ponder nothingness, but don’t much care for relentless despair. As the family’s hopeful shabbos candles suggest, nihilism is exhausting. Best only to dabble in it.

Unwashed Grape
At MainLine Theatre
3997 Blvd. St Laurent
Reservations: 514-849-3378 or

Tuesday to Saturday, 8:00 pm
Matinees: Saturday and Sunday, 2:00 pm

Tickets: $20 regular, $17 student/senior
$10 shows: Tuesdays (Mar. 3, 10, 17); Wed. preview Mar. 4; Sat. matinee, Mar. 7 at 2pm



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