Told through alternating monologues from a nun-like religious devotee and a sex-crazed drag queen, Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary explores the borders between religious and sexual ecstasy. Despite being part of the series that includes Hosanna and Saint Carmen of the Main, seminal Quebec dramatist Michel Tremblay’s Manon is one of his least produced plays, and audiences now have a rare opportunity to see the piece since John Van Burek (the work’s original translator and director) is staging it for the first time in Toronto since 1979.
Xtra: The play is part of Tremblay’s most successful series of works, but it hasn’t been produced that often. Why do you think that is?
John Van Burek: It’s not an easy play to program. It’s very provocative in its discussions of both sexuality and religion. At the same time, it’s very poetic, even more so than a lot of Tremblay’s other plays. Those elements together make it a difficult choice for artistic directors. They can sometimes be very conservative people because they’re balancing programming against keeping a company running. It doesn’t take much to scare them off a script if they think it won’t work for their audiences. But there’s also an aspect of our society that’s very enamoured with the brand new. There’s an increasing reluctance to see things that aren’t hot off the presses. Putting a play like this in your season right now takes a certain kind of vision, being able to look forward and to the past at the same time.
What’s different about doing this play in 2014 than in 1979?
A big thing is that the shock value is gone. I’d still say it’s provocative, but people aren’t going to be gasping at the language anymore. That aspect can get in the way of the story, so I think this time around, people will be better able to access the characters and their struggle.
Although Tremblay is one of Canada’s best-known gay playwrights, his work has never been produced at Buddies in its 35-year history. Why do you think that is and what do you think it says that his work is being presented there now?
Even though Tremblay is a gay playwright, he’s always maintained he doesn’t write gay plays. His plays often come from his own experience, and in many instances he uses gay characters. But the whole question of sexual identity becomes a means to an end in his plays, not an end in itself, which may be why he hasn’t been seen there previously. In terms of it being there now, that really has to do with Brendan (Healy). He’s working really hard to raise the bar and broaden the horizons of the company in a meaningful way. Part of that has been to put, for lack of a better word, some classics into his seasons, like The Maids and The Normal Heart. It’s great he’s doing that because audiences can discover really good playwriting they might never otherwise have the chance to see.