Apparently plenty, according to the young protagonist of Jonathan Garfinkel‘s intriguing work, The House of Many Tongues, currently running at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre through to this Wednesday. Playing since the end of April, this magic realism-esque piece touches on sex, family, history, politics, fantasy, art, age, and… uh, toilets. All at once. It’s a tall order indeed, and it doesn’t always succeed, but it makes for some interesting, challenging viewing nonetheless.
The plot revolves around fifteen-year-old Alex, a sexually curious Israeli living with his ex-Army-officer father, Shimon. Alex thinks he has found a fail-proof method to bring peace in the Middle East: Jewish men should go down on Palestinian women, and Palestinian men should go down on Jewish women. He wants to test his theory on his cousin, Rivka, who’s set to enter the Israeli army. She doubts Alex’s theory and suggests he hold her instead, to which he earnestly responds, “Why?” (which elicited some telling guffaws from the male members of the audience). Into their lives comes the Arab Abu Dalo, who claims he once owned their house, and eventually, his angry fiften-year-old daughter, Suha. Before you can say salaam (or is that shalom?), the four are attempting a co-habitation, as Dalo methodically types out Shimon’s history, eventually incorporating the ugly bits he’d rather his son didn’t know.
The House of Many Tongues is clever on several levels; its title plays on the twin puns of oral sex and linguistics, and its writer, Garfinkel, has anthropomorphized the house itself -into the person of actor Fiona Highet. The house “speaks” to various characters without sides -it simply offers suggestions and ideas. House also seems particularly delighted by Dalo’s appreciation of her/its genuine cedar toilet seat, noting that few, if any, ever appreciate such trivialities. Enter a talking camel who tries to woo House, in the form of actor/musician Raoul Bheneja, and a bit about traveling to Paris that is shown via video clip. Camel has his own theories about peace, family, and love.
It’s all very cute, if equally disjointed and disconnected, and some of the best bits involve the scenes between Shimon and Dalo. Actors Howard Jerome and Hrant Alianak, (respectively) give wonderful, heartfelt performances, playing men who’ve been bent and twisted by tragedy and loss, and who only want the best for their children. As Suha, Erin MacKinnon captures all the spitting venom and aching rebellion of a daughter desperately seeking her father’s love and attention, while actor/playwright Daniel Karasik is deeply charming and affecting as the curious, probing son who is relentless in his pursuit of the truth about his past. Bheneja and Highet share a few memorable scenes, their flirtation a kind of dance for the ages, though with Bheneja’s considerable musical gifts, I sort of wished he’d been given more instruments with which to woo. Alas.
The House of Many Tongues is interesting for the ideas it presents in terms of the Middle East -some funny, some profane -but it isn’t the kind of show to bring your Gran to (unless she’s one of those really cool grannies). It also asks a bit of patience, a lot of suspension of disbelief, and an open heart with which to absorb the poetry and flow of Garfinkel’s words and ideas. Director Richard Rose gives a nice soundtrack to accompany while you’re chewing over the possibilities. There’s a lot that could still be done with a work like this -somehow, it doesn’t feel finished -but starting down the road feels like a good first step. It’s true in life, as in … um, oral sex, that the destination somehow isn’t as important as the journey getting there. Right?