april 2017 | Volume 154
Eric Peterson. Photo credit: Guntar Kravis
Annabel Soutar is a Montreal-based playwright whose company, Porte Parole Productions, according to its mission statement, “creates and produces original documentary plays about Canadian contemporary life.” Soutar’s Seeds, seen here a couple of years ago, concerned a controversy between a Saskatchewan farmer and the Monsanto corporation over the use of GMO canola seeds. Her new play, The Watershed, has as its subject the Harper government’s decision to shut down the Experimental Lakes Project in Northern Ontario.
In both cases Soutar did extensive research and interviews with participants, and uses a great deal of verbatim dialogue and testimony. Both plays present alternative sides of the debate. Both have toured Canada with fine Toronto casts that include Eric Peterson, both directed by Chris Abraham of Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre.
And in both cases Soutar has chosen to build the plays around herself as documentarian. The plots follow her as she researches the stories, interviews the participants, struggles with logistics and ethics, and becomes engaged with the issues. This is a tricky metatheatrical strategy, making herself a character and centering the plays around her quest for whatever truth there is in the situation. It risks distracting attention from the issue itself and framing Soutar as self-indulgent, even egotistical.
I thought it worked well for Seeds—partly because the approach seemed so novel, partly because the production was slick but relatively straightforward and unadorned, and partly because Peterson’s wonderful performance as the central character, the farmer who challenged Monsanto, really was at the centre of the play.
I don’t think it works well for The Watershed. Especially if you’ve seen Seeds, the novelty wears off pretty quickly. The production is often spectacular, but also bloated, as is the much too long script. And although it treats an important issue—a government’s attempt to deny science and silence scientists in order to pursue its own political agenda, a phenomenon that’s reared its head again with the coming of Trump—the play feels dated, dealing as it does with an event specifically symptomatic of Stephen Harper’s reign. Unlike Monsanto, the key political figures in The Watershed—Harper, his ministers and apologists—are no longer in power, and the policies at the heart of the play have been reversed.
What dominates the play and Abraham’s production is the decision of Soutar (played with passion by Liisa Repo-Martell) to involve her family in the research for her watershed project. Her husband (played by Alex Ivanovici—Soutar’s real-life husband) and 8- and 10-year-old daughters (adult actors Molly Kidder—Peterson’s real-life daughter—and Virgilia Griffith) become part of a kind of home schooling project. Soutar’s father (Peterson), an old school Conservative supporter, is the voice of opposition in the household, challenging Soutar’s liberal assumptions and making economic arguments in favour of Harper’s policies.
All the excellent actors—including ex-Vancouverite Brenda Robins, Bruce Dinsmore and Kimwun Perehinec—play multiple characters, many of them real-life figures (Harper, Joe Oliver, Maud Barlow, Jian Ghomeshi, and many lesser known politicians, scientists, academics and media personalities). Abraham finds very clever ways to transform the actors from one character to another right before our eyes. In one scene the 8-year-old daughter is washing herself in the bathtub; seconds later, she dons a beard and becomes Crow Theatre’s Chris Abraham, talking to Soutar about the play-in-progress, though still in the bathtub.
These are charming techniques, highlighting the talents of the performers, reminding us that we’re watching a play (but why exactly?) and keeping up the pace. But even the charm and pace wear off as the play seems to incorporate every phone call and conversation and meeting Soutar had during her research. And pretty soon you start to notice that a lot of time is spent with the family, the sisters squabbling or watching television, Soutar quizzing them about what they’re learning about watersheds. The first act runs 90 minutes and seems longer.
The hour-long second act is almost entirely taken up with an interminable road trip that Soutar, husband, daughters and daughters’ friend (Robins) take in a Winnebago from Montreal to Fort McMurray. (Denyse Karn’s projections are fabulous throughout, but here they tell us it’s day 14, day 26, day 33.) Most of that act seems to be about the kids, a lot of it with them yelling and Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound blasting. Somebody needed to take a red pencil to the script and tell the director that the kids’ stuff had stopped being fun.
I don’t mean to belabor the argument or this review. I liked a lot of the show, and I’m glad that Gateway is bringing us work from acclaimed Canadian companies we wouldn’t otherwise see. But the whole thing should have been 90 minutes and focused more sharply on the issues, which remain more important than the actual events or Soutar’s family’s involvement with them.
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