Am I the only person in the world who never saw Andre the Giant wrestle? I had a vague awareness that he was a wrestler at some point in his lifetime, but to me, he will always and only be Fezzik (his character in The Princess Bride). Apparently the French actor was a superstar in the wrestling world, so it’s a good thing I went to see Giant with a friend who was raised on Stampede Wrestling (and did in fact see Andre wrestle in person). She provided essential context for the wrestling newbie.
The play by locals Eric Rose and David van Belle of Ghost River Theatre traces some of the key events in Andre’s life, as seen through the eyes of his daughter. It’s an unexpected but poignant choice, and in another departure, it is five women who portray Andre and the hypermasculine men in his circle, including his first Montreal promoter, Frank Valois, WWE promoter Vince McMahon Sr, and fellow wrestlers like “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Jake “the Snake” Roberts, and Hulk Hogan. The stage is a wrestling ring surrounded on three sides by the audience, and the story is told with the aid of dozens of puppets — hence its inclusion in the Festival of Animated Objects.
That paragraph alone would be enough to send me to the online box office, but it also helps that the concept is executed with passion and energy that makes it impossible to look away. Familiar local actor Jamie Tognazzini takes on the central role of Andre’s estranged daughter (and often Andre himself) and provides an island of stillness and reflection around which the other characters revolve. Jamie Konchak, Genevieve Pare, Makambe K Simamba, and Morgan Yamada play shifting roles that include the wrestlers, as well as Andre’s doctors, the mother of his daughter, and his Princess Bride co-star Cary Elwes. This is a physically demanding show, and all five women display some spectacular moves in the ring, thanks to wrestling choreographer Brianna Johnson (and, one imagines, a lot of intense training).
Ghost River Theatre has established a reputation for highly visual multimedia collaborations like Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst (2015) and Highest Step in the World (2010), and as with those productions, it’s the images that stay with you for hours after you’ve seen Giant. Puppets and sets designed by Robert Leveroos and built by a small army of local artists are used in dozens of inventive ways to signify Andre’s size — the central fact of his life. He suffered from acromegaly, an endocrine disorder that resulted in his size and many of the health problems that plagued him and led to his death at age 46. Sometimes the focus is just his massive hands that purportedly once popped the tab on 117 beers in one sitting. Other times his enormous feet that caused his opponents to quake in fear when he entered the ring. In an episode surtitled “Dad’s Spine,” model spines are combined with viscerally disturbing crunching sound effects to illustrate the effect of wrestling on Andre’s back. When he is forced to undergo surgery for his chronic back pain, his spine is an immense lantern that floats around the theatre accompanied by Charles Trenet’s La Mer.
This is everything I love about theatre — it doesn’t try to be the stage version of the HBO biopic. It’s oblique and elliptical and leans heavily on metaphor. Perhaps my favourite element is the apparently true story that playwright Samuel Beckett, who lived much of his life in France, used to drive Andre to school when he was a child. Rose and van Belle cast Beckett as a sort of Greek chorus throughout Andre’s journey, commenting on the brevity and cruelty of life. “The world doesn’t care much for the extraordinary,” the playwright tells the young boy. In an interesting twist, next up at the Grand Theatre is Beckett’s Waiting for Godot by Black Radish Theatre.
(Photo courtesy Citrus Photography.)
Giant runs at the Grand Theatre until March 24.
Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.