The Colony of Unrequited Dreams Brings Newfoundland History to Life

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carmen grant & colin furlong

Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, now playing in Halifax at Neptune Theatre, is an adaptation by Robert Chafe from Wayne Johnston’s 1998 novel of the same name. It is a work of historical fiction, which imagines the real-life Joe Smallwood, sometimes called “The Last Father of Confederation,” interwoven in the life of a fictional Sheilagh Fielding, an ambitious and cutting political journalist, against the backdrop of the fall of the Dominion of Newfoundland.

There are so many beautiful layers to Chafe’s play. At its core, it is about the relationship between two very complex human beings, Fielding and Smallwood. Fielding is a pioneering, entrepreneurial woman, who is also an alcoholic battling deep secrets and intense emotional struggles. Carmen Grant creates a true force of nature in this deeply flawed woman, whose writing talent and tenacity to survive in a man’s world is, nevertheless, inspiring. Colin Furlong plays Smallwood, the scrappy underdog, as a man continually trying to do the right thing, but who often finds he’s accidentally screwed something up. There is a bit of a hapless Rick Moranis in Furlong’s portrayal of Smallwood, which ensures that even when all the odds are stacked against him, we’re still rooting for him to succeed.   

Chafe’s characters also beautifully mirror the political landscape in Newfoundland in the years between 1927 and 1948. Smallwood is the perpetual idealist. He begins as a passionate Socialist advocating for Newfoundland’s poorest residents. He believes, earnestly, that he is working in the best interest of the working class, and that there is reason for hope among Depression and possibility among War, and he latches on to Confederation with Canada as a testament to that promise. Sheilagh Fielding, on the other hand, is the cold voice of Cynicism. As a journalist she criticizes all sides of the political spectrum. In her column hope and idealism are  sneered at and dismissed as naive. She views Newfoundland with a hard sense of fatalistic doom. Both represent a clash of two prevalent viewpoints. In a similar way, Fielding is Cosmopolitan and worldly; she writes with scathing wit and academic sophistication, catering to a certain audience, largely centred in St. John’s. Smallwood reaches a different demographic in focusing on the Island’s folklore on The Barrelman, his radio program. It then becomes clear that the future of Newfoundland’s nationhood is divided along these same geographical and economic lines.

Although this play is set in the 20th Century, it is timely to see a story of politicians being beleaguered by a free press; one might even charge Fielding with printing “Fake News.” Although, it was the scene where three men sit at a typewriter intent on destroying the career of a female journalist, to shut her up and to break her, that I found most eerily reminiscent of our own time. It reminded me of the Twitter war against Leslie Jones after Ghostbusters was released and of Donald Trump’s inexcusable treatment of Megyn Kelly. In that moment, Sheilagh Fielding was Everywoman who dares to push the boundaries for women, and who dares to express herself in print.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Furlong and Grant both give formidable, deeply nuanced and heartrending performances. Steve O’Connell and Alison Woolridge shine dramatically as Smallwood’s parents, Charlie and Minnie, embroiled in domestic troubles of their own.

Jillian Keiley directs the piece with a beautiful, continuous sense of movement, and of time, and perpetual snow, that clearly propels the audience through this truly epic era of Newfoundland history. The sets and props are minimal, which gives Keiley the freedom to take us anywhere in a moment and the stage effortlessly transitions between scenes with ten actors (large by Canadian standards), to much more intimate moments with just Fielding or just Smallwood.

I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t know very much at all about the history of Newfoundland, beyond that she joined Canada in 1948, until I saw this play. Its history is far more dramatic than I realized, and I was truly riveted throughout, not knowing how the demise of the Dominion of Newfoundland was going to play out. It is so important that we tell these stories and also that we take them out of our Communities and share them with those who live elsewhere in the country, and beyond. I feel enriched in my new knowledge of how Newfoundland came to join the Dominion of Canada, and to learn so much while being so thoroughly entertained and moved, is really the best the theatre can ask for.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams plays on Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall Stage in Halifax (1593 Argyle Street) until March 12. Show times are Tuesdays to Sundays, 7:30 p.m., with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range in price from $33 to $70 and are available here.     

The NAC & Canadian Theatre Classics

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julie andrews in the iconic sound of music film

In Ottawa yesterday Jillian Keiley revealed her inaugural season as Artistic Director of the National Arts Centre English Theatre and it is an exciting one, featuring a wide array of incredible Canadian artists and telling stories from across the country.

The Season includes a show brought to life at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto- Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience– Annabel Soutar’s Seeds from Porte Parole in Montreal featuring the incomparable Eric Peterson and Artistic Fraud’s Oil and Water written by Robert Chafe and directed by Keiley. The Studio Series includes Raoul Bhaneja’s TWISI Award winning HAMLET (Solo), ENRON by Lucy Prebble and directed by Ron Jenkins and Cliff Cardinal’s “journey into a First Nation heart of darkness” in huff directed by Karin Randoja. There are also productions for young people by Roseneath Theatre (Toronto) and Presentation House Theatre (Vancouver). The ten member NAC acting ensemble will also bring two “classics” to life this season, a re-imagined Tartuffe set on Newfoundland and featuring Andy Jones and a Sing-Along production of The Sound of Music. In all, it is an eclectic mixture of artists and perspectives, from Moliere to Rodgers and Hammerstein, swathed in new Canadian work that is immediate, political and relevant- which is what our National Theatre should be. I am going to be longing for Ottawa in 2013-2014. I want to see everything!

The one choice of Keiley’s that struck me most ardently was The Sound of Music, not because I am adverse to staging a production of The Sound of Music at Christmastime, especially one directed by former Artistic Director of Catalyst Theatre Joey Tremblay with musical direction by Allen Cole, which is likely to be unique and interesting and all the things that I think re-stagings of The Sound of Music should be. Yet, it does strike me that when one seeks to offer her audience a “classic” of the English-speaking theatre the production is very rarely Canadian.

I think it can be argued that Canada does have at least one counterpart for The Sound of Music, but every theatre in the country cannot just remount Anne of Green Gables every season in vain attempt to keep their classics Canadian. But it does beg the question: why don’t more Canadian productions, of both plays and musicals, become the theatrical landmarks and traditions for their audience members like so many of their American counterparts? Once again I find myself coming back to the need for Canada to invest smarter and more ardently in our culture rather than relying on the United States to feed us with theirs.

One important aspect for allowing a work of art to become a “classic” is to provide ample opportunity for the show to be revived and remounted. This is one way that the National Arts Centre, in bringing productions from across Canada to new audiences in Ottawa, as well as developing Co-Productions which assists with touring, helps to ensure that Canadian written work has a life beyond one run in one city. The publishers who publish Canadian plays (and the stores that sell them) are also instrumental in disseminating these works to artists who can bring them to new life and new audiences. In my experience, however, it seems common for a Canadian production to be mounted and re-mounted and to tour, especially within the festival circuit, for 1-5 years after its initial Opening Night, or for a play like Daniel MacIvor’s Here Lies Henry to get a special (and often One Night Only!) performance years later, but it is far rarer to see professional re-imaginings of Canadian plays that were written a decade or more ago. How many times has A Streetcar Named Desire been given a fresh professional production? It is much more novel to see Soulpepper do Doc for example.

It is important that we create new work, yes. I can feel the country churning on the playwriting treadmill- all simultaneously huffing, “we must feed the Canadian theatre cannon- not enough plays- not enough plays”- but if the plays are continually being shelved once they close, never to be seen again- we are missing an important aspect of the building of that cannon. How much have Shakespeare’s works grown and changed simply because they have been molded and shaped by so many imaginations and by the radical shifts in time itself? His plays have endured because people have kept staging them.

It is not just in the theatre where the concept of “classic Canadian works” seems more subjective than in other countries. Also, in the creation of classic works of theatre, often the Arts are all interconnected. For example many “classic” American musicals are based on classic American books or comic strips or classic American films. Is there a Canadian equivalent to The Wizard of Oz or It’s a Wonderful Life? Why not? Is there a Canadian equivalent to Batman or Little Orphan Annie? Why not? It is certainly not for lack of our talent. Yet, when our televisions are dominated by American programming, our movie theatres are filled with American cinema and our newspapers feature exclusively American comic strips, how does Canadian art stand a chance of finding the same scope of audience needed to attain popularity enough to become heralded as a “classic.”? Indeed, under these conditions our art doesn’t really stand a chance.

 How do we change this? How do we eradicate this deeply entrenched National Inferiority Complex narrative that we have all been fed in seemingly innocuous ways since our childhoods? Perhaps we should focus on the success stories instead. How did Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables become a classic? How have Babar and Sharon, Lois and Bram and Robert Munsch and Mr. Dress Up become iconic to Canadian children across the generations? Why does Canadian programming aimed at children often reach both national and international acclaim and notoriety more often than other Canadian programs? Is this the same in literature?

I would argue that part of what gives Robert Munsch and Sharon, Lois and Bram an advantage is that their audience (the children) is primarily focused on the quality and the caliber of the product they are given. Children are open and receptive in a way many adults are not, because inherently they want to love and to engage with the art that is given to them. They aren’t interested in dissecting it because it happens to be Canadian and must, therefore, inherently be inferior to something made in the USA. Young children don’t yet believe in Canada’s inferiority because it is not something they have been taught yet. Why would they think ill of Canadian-made art when Canada is their home? It is absurd. The result is that the product that is allowed to be created and invested in here is able to become world class and, because its audience is dedicated and supportive of it, a show like Mr. Dress Up goes on to delight the children of its initial audiences and then their grandchildren and it becomes a classic.

What does any of this have to do with our National Theatre? Well, primarily it shows how imperative it is that we understand how interconnected all the Arts are in this country. A thriving film industry, strong Canadian television, an investment in Canadian literature and in the music industry and all the Performing Arts contributes to the success of the Canadian Theatre. It helps to spawn new ideas for interdisciplinary adaptations and exciting new work. It feeds audiences that are passionate and engaged in Canadian Arts and culture. Mainstream theatre audiences, in general, often respond positively to seeing beloved, familiar stories on stage. This is why so many regional theatres (and others) program productions like The Sound of Music, especially during the holidays- and there is nothing wrong with that. Yet, wouldn’t it be lovely if Artistic Directors had a myriad of Canadian options- along with the slew of American and British ones- when looking for this type of show for their season?

A classic isn’t born over night, it is something that absolutely needs marinating over time, but I think it is something that we, as the Canadian theatre community, should be conscious about helping to foster and establish- not just in the theatre but in all forms of Canadian art. I also believe vehemently that we should all be actively fighting against American cultural hegemony and the myth of Canadian Inferiority in our everyday lives. Our stories and Our artists deserve it.

Emile’s Dream is a Sweet One

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If someone asked me what made an “East Coast” play stand out from those written in the rest of Canada, I may respond, tongue firmly in cheek, that an “East Coast” play would need to have fiddlers, fish, some kind of strange accent sounding like drunken Irishmen and a charming inferiority complex. Artistic Fraud Theatre’s (Newfoundland) production of Emile’s Dream, which closed on Saturday as part of Eastern Front Theatre’s Supernova Festival is this punch line come to vivid life.
Theatre was born out of our desire to tell our own stories and to honour and remember our past. Emile’s Dream tells the story of Newfoundland fiddler Émile Benôit who rose to fame late in his life, but became known for popularizing Franco-Newfoundland folk music traditions and for composing about two hundred tunes on the fiddle. These sorts of biography plays can be really difficult to construct and it can be just as hard to balance embracing one’s heritage without creating something hokey and stereotypical better suited to a High School skit. In the skilled hands of renowned playwright Robert Chafe and Siminovitch Prize winning Director Jillian Keiley, however, this play is a stunning example of how to take a regional story and turn it into a creative, artful play that can transcend all borders and still brightly sing odes to the place of its birth.
The set of the play included a multitude of fiddles hanging from the ceiling, which were taken down and put back throughout to be played, tossed around mischievously and used to create simple, but very effective pictures to root the story in its time and space. Émile’s story was told by three actors (each one a brilliant and entirely mesmerizing fiddle player), Phil Churchill, Kelly Russell and Sandy Gow. Chafe constructs this tale as a piece of verbatim theatre, using Émile’s own words, and a very specific pattern of speech, to color the misadventures of his life in Black Duck Brook, Newfoundland between 1913 and his death in 1992.
Churchill, Russell and Gow all inhabit the character of Émile and they all take turns speaking his words throughout the chronology, although it is also suggested by the range in the actor’s ages, that although they all share the telling of the tale, and each one knows the beginning, middle and end of it, that Gow personifies a young Émile, Churchill, a slightly older one, and Russell, a more seasoned and wise one. I say this for two reasons. The first is the attitude that each one brings to his or her lines. Gow says her lines with the blithe naivety of youth. Churchill is more cocky, but in an utterly endearing way, and yet, still sheepish. Russell is self-assured, more intense and thoughtful and reflects back more wistfully than the others. There is also an interesting progression of their fascinating Franco-Newfoundland accents. Gow speaks curtly, with a very perceptible French accent. We are most aware of the verbatim theatre aspect of this play when she speaks because her lines sound distinctly unrehearsed and conversational, at times beginning one thought, abandoning it and beginning afresh, all within a single sentence. Churchill still retains a bit of French flair, but Russell speaks almost entirely in a Newfoundland accent and his thoughts are much more fluid, poetic and with a palpable, practical wisdom. It is also really interesting at the times when all three voices collide and speak in unison, each one performing identical gestures, for it immediately denotes significance and heightens and isolates these moments from the rest of the play.
What ties the entire play together, of course, is the music, which is glorious. I was most captivated watching Kelly Russell, who is simply transcendent, yet Churchill and Gow each have their moments in the musical spotlight as well.
Overall, this is one play that had my toe-tapping, bluenose East Coast heart feeling pretty warm and cozy, but one that I think, like the music of Émile Benôit himself, could find mass appeal beyond our shores too.
The Supernova Festival continues this week with FOUR NEW SHOWS BEGINNING TOMORROW, TUESDAY, MAY 24th, 2011.
Week Two: May 24-29: Dedicated to the Revolutions, So…What About Love?, …and stockings for the ladies and WeeTube
Tickets are on sale at the Neptune Theatre Box Office. Adults $25, Seniors/DND/Arts Workers $20, Students $15. *Same day, multiple show discount. We encourage you to catch a double (or triple or quadruple!) header. Your first ticket is full price, however if you purchase tickets for a 2nd, 3rd or 4th show on the same day, those tickets are 50% off.
In person: 1593 Argyle Street. Phone: 902-429-7070. Online. All prices include HST. Neptune service charges for phone and online orders not included. Check out the full schedule here.
The Carleton Music Bar and Grille on Argyle is the SuperNova Festival HotSpot. You’re invited to mix and mingle with the cast and crew every night after the final performance. Take your Supernova ticket stub with you and get 10% off your order.