It is not always the case that blood is thicker than water. When a mother abandons her 5-year-old daughter, her 7-year-old son and her physically disabled husband to go back to her hometown in Brazil, she may be making a choice that is forever irreversible.
The World Premiere of 6 Essential Questions is based on Priscila Uppal’s earlier memoir, Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother, where she documents her own reunion with her mother after several years of being raised without her. Directed by Leah Cherniak, this show, though infused with magic realism, teaches its audience a most integral message about family. Family is comprised of people who care about you. Love, not DNA, is the foundation on which a family is built.
When Renata (Mina James) opens a magical purse that descends from the sky, she finds that it is filled with Portuguese songs and memories of her mother (Elizabeth Saunders). She is then transported to Brazil, looking for closure – or some sort of answer to why she was abandoned, years ago. Instead, she is reacquainted with her mother and her grandmother (Maggie Huculak), and is immediately immersed in frivolity: Portuguese soup, an imaginary tour of Brazil and an excruciatingly long list of the hundreds of reasons why her mother loves herself. Whenever her uncle, Dr. Garbage (Richard Zeppieri), tries to tell her any information about her past, he is immediately interrupted, dismissed or denied acknowledgment from his mother and sister. While Renata searches fervently for answers about her past, her mother frustratingly evades all substantial questions, refusing to come to terms with the choices she’d made.
While the performances are engaging, I didn’t quite feel the cultural significance or the honesty throughout the show. I knew we were in Brazil, but I didn’t feel that we were in Brazil. Aside from the appropriate song choices by sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne, the show felt culturally dry.
In addition to this, the over-the-top nature of the mother, the grandmother and Dr. Garbage made it difficult for me to feel any sort of compassion for the entire situation. Renata’s mother is not a mother. That much is clear. But she is also not a human. She’s more like a stock character who’s had a little too much wine. Or drugs. Or both. This play’s message is clear as crystal. But its characters are circus clowns.
Aside from the aforementioned downfall, the collaboration of the set design by Victoria Wallace and the projection design by Cameron Davis, brilliantly juxtaposes the country of Brazil, with the Brazil that Renata’s mother calls home. While Brazil, as a country, is rich with great beauty, blue skies and grand monuments, Renata’s family lives, literally, on a mound of garbage. No amount of physical beauty can mask the years of betrayal and pain that this family has experienced.
That’s what this play shows us. A family is nothing but a label unless you nurture it and all it involves. No amount of optimism, gifts or fancy lunches can compensate for years of selfish decisions and neglect. 6 Essential Questions teaches us that there are some things you cannot wipe from your memory, no matter how hard you try.
6 Essential Questions runs at Factory Theatre until March 30th. Tickets: PWYC-$42. For tickets and more information, visit www.factorytheatre.ca.