The author credited for this play was Roswitha of Gandersheim, a 10th century playwright, poet, and (according to the Canoe Festival program and Wikipedia) secular canoness. A Wikipedia link explains that this referred to a woman who lived in a monastery but did not take religious vows, so it might have been a handy way for a woman of the aristocracy to pursue a single scholarly life.
This adaptation as object theatre was made by Joseph Shragge of Montreal. Mia van Leeuwen of out of line theatre was credited with direction and design. Object theatre is a sort of puppetry using found objects. The four puppet performers were David Barnet, Kara Chamberlain, Nancy McAlear, and Brendan Nearey. The objects were simple and ordinary (a kettle for the emperor, teacups of diminishing size for the three little girls, a mirror for the mother), but the small gestures of the puppeteers and their voices made it easy to picture the characters as the story unfolded.
The subject matter of the tale was a Christian woman and her three young daughters, defying the Roman emperor Hadrian to the extent of torture and martyrdom. It was a classic martyr story, with the satisfying ending being death without surrender leading to frustration and loss of authority of the murderer. I imagine that in the 10th century it might have been particularly radical to have the woman and her young daughters being strong and determined and logical, while the male emperor and his advisor/executioner appear ineffective, emotional, and flailing. The stories of my 20th century childhood might have found beauty in sacrifice and justice in choosing the right belief, but the responses from my 21st-century heart as a parent and aunt and leader of young people are so strongly opposed to the idea of encouraging children to die for a belief or ideal that I couldn’t finish this blog post last night. I can admire the courage and honour the choice of Aitzaz Hasan, the 15-year-old Pakistani who tackled a suicide bomber to save his classmates, but I feel really uncomfortable about the idea of a parent encouraging his or her children to choose a principle or belief over staying alive. And I don’t think I’m the only modern person who feels this way, or we wouldn’t have discussions about whether Christian-Scientist or Jehovah’s-Witness parents should be prevented by a just society from refusing their children conventional life-saving medical treatments or whether small children are able to make those decisions themselves. Anyway, it’s upsetting, but the play made me think, and I’m glad of that.
I’ve also been interested to notice how the genre of the storytelling, with the simple symbols representing the characters and their fates, allowed some graphic but elliptical imagery to address the horror of the tortures and deaths more closely than would have been bearable for a more conventional acting genre. For example, the executioner broke a teacup, or crushed a ripe pomegranate, and the audience gasped in shock for the brutal murder of a child represented. I won’t record any more of the details because I need to be able to sleep – but it was fascinatingly well-done.
Canoe Festival 2014 continues this week with showings of National Elevator Project Part 2 Tuesday through Sunday, and Tanya Tagaq’s Nanook of the North with one performance Wednesday. Twitter hashtag #canoe2014 and a series of guest bloggers posting at http://canoetheatrefest.tumblr.com continue the conversations about performances and performers, theatre and life.