DECEMBER 2021 | Volume 210
Natasha and Anni. Photo credit Shimon Karmel.
“Cancel culture” is much on people’s minds these days. The concern over a tendency to censor and ostracize those perceived to have broken some unwritten rule about race or gender or sex seems to have migrated from conservative Americans, who use the phrase as a cudgel to batter progressive Democrats, to even liberal Canadians. Friends of mine—old, privileged white guys, yes, but definitely not right-wing reactionaries—complain about their inability to argue “both sides of an issue” without “getting into trouble.”
Personally, I hate the term cancel culture, as I do “political correctness,” both phrases loaded with assumptions about people so presumptuous as to establish their own arbitrary standards and demand that the rest of us abide by them, or else. Not like the rest of us, of course, who never judge or condemn or establish arbitrary standards by which others must abide.
British playwright Mike Bartlett wittily and poignantly examines this macrocosmic issue via the microcosm of a single father-daughter relationship in Snowflake, given its North American premiere by Mitch and Murray Productions, the independent Vancouver company that has become known for its annual staging of heretofore unknown, fascinating, provocative plays.
Set in 2019 in a church hall in Oxfordshire, England, the first act of this structurally unusual play is a 30-minute monologue by middle-aged Andy (Aaron Craven), a widower whose late teens-early twenties daughter Maya has effectively cancelled him. She left home three years earlier and hasn’t spoken to him since. He purports not to know why she left and has frozen him out.
It’s Christmastime and Maya has been spotted back in town, so Andy has prepared a welcome home for her in the hope that she’ll show up at his door. Meanwhile, he rants about how young people today are so obsessed with identity that they ignore the decay of decency, politeness and morality. Etc., etc.
When the door opens, it’s not Maya who first enters but another young woman, Natalie (Natasha Burnett), who claims to need access to the hall. Chatty Natalie gets Andy to open up and acts as a kind of intermediary, trying to help him understand some things about himself and his attitudes that might have alienated Maya.
When sulky Maya (Anni Ramsay) finally shows up, Andy is more defensive than relieved. It turns out that a disagreement over BREXIT had something to do with Maya’s leaving, but that is ultimately revealed as a symptom rather than a cause. We get to hear Natalie and Maya’s challenges to Andy’s attitudes and behaviors, and Andy’s sometimes reasonable defense of his positions. But Bartlett very cleverly also shows Andy doing exactly what Maya has accused him of doing to her. The play ends …. well, you’ll have to see for yourself how it ends and how or if any of this is resolved.
And so you should, because Snowflake elegantly captures so much of the debate between the “reasonable” status quo—the 21st century version of father-knows-bestism—and the “radical” generational challenges to it. How reasonable is the one and how radical the other, who is cancelling whom, those are questions the play poses in emotionally potent ways.
And the acting is very strong. Director Jennifer Copping has wisely left the stage relatively bare (David Roberts’ minimalist set comes into play only at the end with a couple of sweet special effects) so that the actors directly confront one another.
Craven does a fine job being goofily likeable and human enough so that we don’t just write off Andy for his berating condescension. Burnett shows nice deadpan comic timing and creates a fully rounded Natalie, who might otherwise come off as simply the playwright’s mouthpiece (even though Bartlett is a middle-aged white man and Burnett a young Black woman). Ramsay has the toughest job as Maya, entering late and highly wrought, but she maintains emotional control and beautifully narrates an incident that provides the key to her relationship with her dad, and includes both Boris Johnson and the play’s title.Snowflake provides more evidence that theatre companies don’t have to sacrifice dramatic substance in presenting holiday shows. The Christmas spirit flourishes in this excellent play and production.
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