A new take on Swan Lake spins the fairytale on its head; an aging interracial couple dealing with the wife’s Alzheimer’s and the husband’s fixation on a woman from his past.
Swan Song of Maria tells the story of a married couple trying to cope with everyday problems. Husband and wife Joe and Jillian have different views on life and growing old, making it hard for them to communicate. Joe (Joel Miller) can’t accept the fact that things are going to change, while Jillian (Ranee Lee) tries to convince him that sometimes it is better to let things go. He hides behind his ideas and fantasies, not willing to face reality. Joe is struggling to care for his sick wife. He is an idealist, and clings onto the memory of his muse Maria, a young ballerina he met in the 60s. Joe writes about his muse to keep his memory of her alive, using some of his wife’s traits to flesh out Maria’s character in his plays.
The show uses ballet, language and poetry to express a wide array of emotions. Director Tyrone Benskin said the story is connected to Swan Lake, where the heroine is struggling to find her place in a world that is really centered around someone else. Her husband constantly compares his recollections of Maria, who represents the beautiful young swan, to Jillian. This puts a strain on an already strained marriage.
Jillian is also trying to deal with her memory loss caused by Alzheimer’s disease. She is a realist struggling to remember her past and passion for dance, while fighting to find her last emotional connection with her husband before she is completely replaced by his infatuation with Maria. Lee captures the essence of the character in a very moving performance. “The play is not about Alzheimer’s, Alzheimer’s is the catalyst,” said Benskin. “It’s not a docudrama, you’re not really watching this women deteriorate.”
There is a “whole black swan, white swan parallel” to the story, Benskin said. The play is not about racism, but Jillian brings up the fact that Maria is white. She refers to her as being pallid, using Joe’s words to describe her skin tone.
The play is realistic in its depiction of Alzheimer’s, and the story of two lovers losing their deep-seated connection is powerful and heartbreaking. Lee and Miller gave memorable performances as the married couple, which were accentuated by the ballet and dance interspersed throughout the scenes.
The Black Theatre Workshop has been working with the Montreal Alzheimer’s Group to provide a better understanding of Alzheimer’s to the audiences. The workshop has held talk-back sessions following the play to discuss the disease and other topics related to the story.
Swan Song of Maria runs until November 22 at MAI, 3680 Jeanne-Mance.