Saturday, March 20, 2010

performing Thompson

The beginning of March offered Saskatoon audiences a rare sighting of two productions of plays by Judith Thompson. Recognized by some, “as one of the major playwrights in the English-speaking world ...", her profoundly dark and disturbing visions present challenges to mainstream companies. It is not surprising then both plays were performed by what may be described as outlier ensembles.

White Line Productions performed The Crackwalker at The Remai Arts Centre's BackStage Stage and Goat Songs Theatre performed Lion in the Streets at The Refinery Arts and Spirit Centre. Director Kristen Holfeuer assembled her Crackwalker cast from the creative firepower of recent University of Saskatchewan Drama Department graduates while Bethani Jade directed her young, fearless group of high-school and current university students in the fragmented and disruptive narrative Lion in the Streets. Does it really take gender to recognize the common condition of oppression with the will to powerfully confront that oppression? Or is it simply coincidence playwright and directors are female?

Seen together the performances complement each other. The actors Scott Gould, Alan Long, Aaron Naytowhow, Cherillyn Porter & Tara Schoonbaert unleashed studied, controlled and carefully crafted portrayals. Saija Shearer, Jeanine Thrasher, Charlie Peters, Danika Stecler, Alana Pancyr and Tristan Hills twisted and turned in the precarious and reckless types stretched beyond limits. All actors committed themselves with exhaustive energy and an undeniable nightmarish passionate journey of self-destruction accessing emancipation through self-construction. The Man in The Crackwalker daringly hinted & hovered beyond metaphor just as the child/youth Isobel vibrated in dreaming reality. One can only imagine the strength of purpose stage managers Cady Groat & Erin Crowley maintained during the harrowing rehearsal passage.

The simplicity of space and sound design whether a couch or pew or natural sounds or Soso songs or Johnny Cash NIN cover allowed the gritty & raw text to play with its richly layered poetics.

Seen together the text and images of psychological, sexual and physical violence assault the senses. Thompson has written on the role her epilepsy played in shaping her work:
"My seizures were horrifying, but I had so few that I think it's helped me as a writer. To be an artist, you have to have some of the advantages of being an insider and you also need the disadvantages of being an outsider. I've been marginalized by that, and I'm grateful to have suffered through it because, if you get through it, it can be a gift if you've also had the advantages I've had." (Behind the Mask)

Seen together the complex, risky emotional territory of Thompson's characters who so desperately seek love and Grace in the cruel and hateful terrain invite serious "work".
"Once you're in your late twenties and thirties if you don't do serious work on who you are, if you don't acknowledge and meet fatality, then there is such damage that can be done. You have to really work. You have to think and work on yourself." (Judith Thompson Interview by Judith Rudakoff in Fair play: 12 women speak: conversations with Canadian playwrights )

There can be found the outlier ensembles. Artists taking the courage to dig around - to dig around at their community, their family & their generation in all its economic/class splendour and to explore how strong the connection is between culture and the crashes. Kristen Holfeuer when asked what she had learned from her work answered: "To trust my instincts more."

Praise all outlier ensembles and to the mainstream & "indie" companies please take notice. Be brave. Strive for excellence. Reinvest in the daring experiment called theatre. Find the Monster.