Finance is a nebulous, threatening behemoth to me. I should understand it better, I know, as I’m fully aware it impacts my life in overt and clandestine ways. Through a complex network of negotiations, strategic positioning, and chance; it is both a grand pageant of speculative adventure and a corrupt tangle of furtive dealings. The Lehman Trilogy, presented by Canadian Stage, asks us to invest in the prime movers, finance bros—generations of them!—and that’s a hard sell for me.
I bought in though. Stefano Massini’s script (adapted by Ben Power) distills the story of the Lehman Brothers and forges it into an epic fable about the American Dream. Divided into three acts, we witness three generations of Lehmans build an empire. Henry (Ben Carlson), Emanuel (Graeme Somerville) and Mayer (Jordan Pettle) are Bavarian Jewish immigrants, humble yet enterprising. From early success in the cotton industry of the mid-nineteenth century, their business expands and transforms over the years. As the tangible raw materials of industry become quaint abstractions in a world of stocks and shares, the precarious nature of this system leads to collapse and ruin.
There is a Forrest Gump quality here as the Lehman clan have encounters with iconic landmarks of American history—the Civil War, the creation of the Panama Canal, the Great Depression. In a bit of poetic embellishment, it even posits them as having coined the term “middle men.”
There are some family dynamics and romantic reminders of how far they’ve come from scant beginnings, but this story isn’t particularly concerned with interpersonal dynamics, the immigrant experience or their Jewish heritage. They are just the broad strokes in this portrait of capitalism. The industrious people who built and run the system are cogs in the vast, dehumanizing machinery that chews up the many for the benefit of the few.
A row of cadaver feet lining the bottom of the set remind us of this human cost. These very realistically fleshy protrusions crushed under the imposing bulk of Camellia Koo’s set are its most disquieting feature. The narrow ledges the actors traverse as they bound through the story are also unnerving. The massive, modular structure is composed of weather-worn wooden crates stacked upon each other and rising far above the actors in a vertiginous, daunting erection.
Though it can sometimes feel like a highlight reel of key events, we have a compelling enough sense of these people. Carlson, Pettle and Somerville ground the stylized aesthetic of the production with distinctive, idiosyncratic details. The abundance of communal narration and its cumbersome “and then…” format doesn’t feel tedious because their delivery is so dynamic. Their scene work, though it doesn’t have much breathing room, is especially nuanced. Pettle wows us with two hilarious segments where he portrays several contrasting characters in rapid-fire succession. With impressive vocal and physical dexterity, he embodies a host of telling quirks that shape this series of one-liner bits into fully realized people.
The most exhilarating character interactions of the show occur in the second act, where there is a sense of urgency and momentum. This is bookended by a first act that feels plodding as it drags its burden of set-ups and world-building, and an often hard to track third act that rockets us from the stock market crash of 1929 to the financial crisis of 2008 in under an hour. The psychedelic disco vibe session that marks the 1970s overstays its welcome and is the limpest portion of the show.
Though I didn’t find myself caring much about the specific people portrayed here, Philip Akin’s production has such energetic and lyrical theatricality, I was entirely awestruck and spellbound by the gestalt of it. The set—which is constantly revealing playful little surprises as the modular elements are rearranged—is thrown into relief by Steve Lucas’ lighting, which shifts from sombre earth tones to garish reds, blues and purples. The actors’ stylized clambering over and through the shifting structure is both visually stunning and, with Alexis Milligan’s movement direction, completely natural.
Power’s adaptation is very efficient and symmetrical, but I’m curious about Massini’s original five-hour Italian version. Does it get into the weeds of messy human drama or is it just longer? Regardless, Akin’s commanding vision for this Canadian premiere is an arresting, innovative spectacle.