Tag Archives: pyretic productions

Memories and witnesses in Blood of Our Soil

One of the powers of live theatre is that it can educate audience members about horrible things that happened or are happening.  Sometimes people with privileged and busy lives like mine kind of missed reading about world events or unpleasant parts of history.  I’m not sure whether it’s worse nowadays, when first encounters with news might come through the filter of which stories from which sources the people on my Facebook feeds choose to link and when we get to hear about so many awful things happening that it’s easy to be distracted by the next one, or whether it was worse in the past when there was no way around mass media, nobody tweeting from war zones.

Live theatre can also be an effective way of making sense of traumatic stories experienced by parents and grandparents, placing them in context and sharing them with a wider public.  In Empire of the Son, which played earlier this year at the Citadel, the performer-creator Tetsuro Shigematsu tells some of his father’s stories, including being a Japanese child during World War II and experiencing fallout from Hiroshima (literal fallout).  In Children of God, which previews at the Citadel starting tomorrow, Corey Payette and his creative team will show us some stories of indigenous children in Canadian residential schools, and how the experience affected them and their families later.  And in Blood of Our Soil, which opened last night at the Arts Barns Westbury Theatre, playwright and performer Lianna Makuch, director Patrick Lundeen, and the Pyretic Productions team show us some details of the hardships of Ukrainian people over the last 90 years or so, in a format that felt human-scale, touching and inspiring, and also showed me how much I just don’t know about that part of the world. 

The Westbury Theatre space was arranged in a way that felt more three-dimensional and alive than I’ve ever seen it.  Stephanie Bahniuk’s design had dim dappled lighting full of mist exposing a thrust stage area crisscrossed with laundry lines above, and damaged buildings towards the back, with projections (Nicholas Mayne) showing glimpses of life through the windows.  Closer inspection revealed that the buildings all seemed to be constructed of old wooden pallets/skids.  It reminded me of the set for Irma Voth, but come to life in three dimensions instead of being flat and behind the action.

The first act follows a fairly conventional solo-narration format, with Makuch switching back and forth between a character like herself and her Baba (grandma), signalling the switch by pulling her kerchief over her hair and sometimes changing her accent.  Larissa Pohoreski provides some musical background, and the other performers Oscar Derkx, Julia Guy, Maxwell Lebeuf, and Tanya Pacholok create a chorus of expressive movement, occasional song, and joyful folk-dance.

At the end of the first act, the dying Baba tells her granddaughter to go home for her, go to her home in Ukraine.

The second act is all contemporary.  Makuch relates how the narrator travels not only to the village and house of her grandmother’s memories, but to the current war zone of Eastern Ukraine.  In this act, the other performers all represent people she gets to know in the areas touched by war, young former soldiers (Derkx and Lebeuf), Russian-speaking sisters whose brother had been killed in Kyiv participating in the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 (Pohoreski and Pacholok), and a young mother, an internally displaced person living with her small child in a hostel and longing for an apartment and a job and hope (Guy).  I found this character particularly compelling, abrupt and mistrustful, with her fierce protectiveness expanding from herself and her daughter to cover the Canadian visitor as well.  Makuch is painfully honest in showing the visitor’s naiveté and questioning her motives, which impressed me.  Suddenly I remembered the first performance in which I had ever seen her, Greg MacArthur‘s The Missionary Position, which illustrated the harm done by well-meaning misguided Canadian visitors in a place like Haiti.   The audience gets to share in the narrator’s astonishment that in an area of recent/ongoing conflict, “veteran” doesn’t fit the connotations we might have here, old men and women in Legion jackets.  She gets drunk with the young former fighters, and they tell her stories, not just stories of fighting but of how the fighting affected their relationships with women, some of them very funny.

Blood of Our Soil runs at the Arts Barns until March 9th, with tickets available here.


Two tales around times of disaster

It was going to be three.  I was planning to get to One Flea Spare this afternoon, the Trunk Theatre production about people quarantined during a bubonic plague, but that didn’t end up happening.  Colin MacLean’s review of that show is here. 

So the two shows I saw this weekend were Bears and The Laws of Thermodynamics.   Both of them were set around some kind of environmental disaster which wasn’t quite explained.  In Bears, it was a current or very-near-future setting, not too far from here, with oil spills and watershed damage and other familiar real or realistic problems.  In Laws of Thermodynamics, it was … pretty much the opposite of all that.  Can you say “magical realism” in an end-of-the-world story?  Nothing is explained about why the world seems to be ending, or why it is ending the way it is, and some of the things that happen really don’t fit current models of physics.  Oh, but while I’m thinking of it, there’s some magical-realism to the story of Bears too, it’s just not about the setting.

Bears is a new show written by Matthew Mackenzie, who wrote Sia.  Its short run at the PCL theatre had several sold-out houses.  It was produced by Pyretic Productions, with Patrick Lundeen credited as “Consulting Director”.  Sheldon Elter narrates the story, in the odd format of a third person narrative about Floyd while he seems to be portraying Floyd himself.  It is as if he is standing outside the person to whom the events happened, leaving it unclear whether he is actually still that person.  And that is probably not an accident.   As the story starts, Floyd is an oilpatch worker who is fleeing arrest for some kind of sabotage, heading west to the mountains and recounting memories of growing up with his Kokum (Cree for Grandma) picking berries, dancing at pow-wows, and watching the stars.  On his journey, he slips gradually from the man-made world of highways and diners to the natural world of the foothills and mountains, but continues to encounter evidence of human destruction such as dead animals, clearcutting, and avalanche.  He also experiences many delightful natural phenomena –  butterflies, chickadees, salmon, berries, and alpine-meadow flowers.

While Elter narrates the story actively as Floyd, stomping about the stage in high-visibility coveralls and work boots, he is backed up by a chorus of dance/movement artists (Alida Nyquist-Schultz, Krista Posyniak, Kate Stashko, Anastasia Maywood, Aimee Rushton)  They added visual interest and emotional intensity, with movements that were sometimes representational (I loved the churning salmon and the irritatingly-flittering butterflies), sometimes more loosely interpretive, and occasionally a more traditional unison choreography.  Bryce Kulak played and sang several clever original songs, in character and costume as the ghost of an old-time Mountie.  Lianna Makuch and Ainsley Hillyard had cameo appearances.  The simple set was made up of some jagged mountain set pieces with echoing outlines on the floor, with video projections and lighting changing with the story.   And the magical realism that I alluded to earlier – I’m not sure whether Floyd’s transformation during the voyage was real, metaphorical, or something in between, but I didn’t need to know that to appreciate the story and the message.

I was uncomfortable with the specific naming of a pipeline project and a pipeline company, but I’m okay with being uncomfortable.  Art with the power to make people squirm and think and examine cognitive dissonance and argue is a good thing.

The Laws of Thermodynamics, a new play by Cat Walsh directed by Heather Inglis, was playing in the Westbury Theatre, configured with a few rows of seats on risers close to the stage area.   I went to see it partly because Workshop West always has interesting productions and partly because Melissa Thingelstad was in it, and her characters fascinate me.  It also had James Hamilton and Julien Arnold in it, both with appearance and posture so unlike anything I’d seen them in before that I was looking through my program to see whether there was a bigger cast than I’d expected.  But no, there were just five, with Cody Porter having a large role and Paula Humby a small unspeaking one.  Theatre YES was credited alongside Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre.

It took me quite a while to figure out what was going on.  Which was okay, I think it was supposed to.  A traveller in hazardous times (Cody Porter) has a truck breakdown,  wanders into a small town looking for help, and meets weird people who maybe aren’t what they seem.   Thingelstad is Della, a diner waitress who seems to be in charge, with a huge ring of keys.  She and Jerry (Hamilton) each confides secrets in the traveller Daniel, with instructions not to tell the other.  Arnold’s place in the remnant society is clearly on the bottom of the heap, but it takes a while to find out why.  One of the ways that the eerie approaching doom was indicated on stage was the buzzing and swaying of the big electrical-transmission poles arranged in a false-perspective series extending backwards.  I don’t know why I liked that so much, but I did.  I liked the companionate relationship between Daniel and Della that formed as the end became closer, sharing a hoarded Twinkie under useless umbrellas.

The Laws of Thermodynamics was one of those shows that would have benefited from a second viewing, I think.  It was both darker and more elliptical than Bears, and in some ways less entertaining.  But I was not disappointed in seeing Melissa Thingelstad play another strange character, and there were some funny parts in the character interactions too.

I think the next play on my schedule will be Pink Unicorn.  And maybe by then I’ll be caught up posting about shows that I saw earlier.

Sia – painful but not unbearable story of the aftermath of war

Currently playing at the ATB Financial Arts Barns’ black-box theatre space PCL Studio Theatre is Pyretic Productions’ Sia, by Matthew Mackenzie.  There are about 50 seats arranged in two rows along one long side of the room, and the set visible before the play started included a piece of broken concrete-block wall, some debris, and steps up to a platform covered with some malevolently-twisted welded tube and old metal chairs, formed into shapes suggesting a large tree and some roots or vines.  Program notes mentioned a refugee camp in Ghana, Liberian child soldiers, and the Butcher of Liberia’s conviction for multiple war crimes, so I worried for a few minutes that I might find the portrayal too disturbing sitting in the front row.   But I didn’t, quite.

The lights then dimmed and I was swept away into the story, starting as Makambe K Simamba, playing a young girl (I first guessed her age between 9 and 15 but she later said she was eleven), recited a folktale about birds arguing over a mango and the snake advisor who betrays them.  In the next scene, we saw two young men staggering home together from a party.  The white Canadian student Nick Summers (Patrick Lundeen) was very drunk, and his friend Abraham, a black Liberian from the refugee camp where Nick has been volunteering (Thomas Olajide, who played the same part at Factory Theatre in Toronto last year) was helping him home and washing off the magic-marker tattoos he’s been covered with at his departure/birthday party.  We saw quickly that Abraham was sober and had some kind of plan that Nick didn’t know about, and even though they seemed to be friends, this was worrying.  I wasn’t even surprised when Abraham snapped handcuffs onto his half-conscious friend, and then video-recorded him as must be de rigeur for abductors.

Scenes then alternate between the interactions of Nick and Abraham, and interactions between Abraham and Simamba’s character, his well-loved precocious younger sister who is practising what she will say in a presentation she’ll give to some UN peace monitors expected in their village.   She tries out the Liberian Declaration of Independence, the symbolism of a Christian communion service, and a story about Poseidon and Atlantis, while her older brother encourages and teases and critiques her.

Abraham goads Nick about being a typical Canadian refugee-camp tourist, coming to “observe”, and this seems to be a fair accusation.  His attempt to do yoga sun salutations while chained up is classic.  His later behaviour under the influence is particularly amusing, and slightly reminiscent of the last character I’d seen Patrick Lundeen play, the “mildly retarded but it’s just fetal alcohol syndrome, I’m not stupid, eh?” character in Kill Me Now. I was also reminded of the naive missionaries of last year’s U of A Studio Theatre production The Missionary Position, and the jarring disconnect between their Canadian confidence and the setting they didn’t know they didn’t understand.

It all gradually makes sense, and has a sort of hopeful ending, but not without living through and reliving some horrible events consistent with the bigger story of that place and time.  Thomas Olajide’s character is the most developed and complex.  His smooth shifts back and forth between the young patriot teasing his sister and the tormented man using his friend in order to get something he needs desperately made me like and feel sorry for his character.

Sia is playing until Sunday, with tickets available through the Fringe box office.  It’s not for the squeamish or easily upset, but it’s a good story.  I’m glad I saw it.