Theatre has a notoriously short memory. That's much of its allure: no two performances are ever alike, you have to be there to catch the moment, and the final curtain call means the end of that version of the play forever. The sheer eventfulness of the genre also means that to create a shared memory of theatre we need records: play publications and written interpretations to bring past closer to present.
A small publication in celebration of the director Eric Steiner does much to remind us what it means to create a collective memory, a shared sense of what has mattered in the theatre. After his death in 1993 at the age of forty-six, a gathering was held in his honour at the Canadian Stage Company in Toronto. People who had worked with him-actors, playwrights, designers, other directors-spoke about his legacy, shared anecdotes, played songs, and told tales. Eric Steiner: A Life in the Theatre (Raincoast, 64 pages, $12.95 paper), edited by his long-time partner, Steven Jack, records their reminiscences and presents a chronology of his theatre work.
The speakers' love for Steiner is as clear as their appreciation of his theatrical talents. As well as an intimate and multi-faceted portrait of the man and the director, the book conveys a vibrant and intriguing-if scattershot-picture of the changing face of Canadian theatre over the last few decades, particularly the hectic fecundity of Toronto theatre in the 1970s. As befits the speakers' theatrical skills, the stories are presented with wit and style. Especially memorable are Wendy Thatcher's reminiscence of making do during an early Factory Theatre production and Lally Cadeau's hilarious description of a surreal weekend symposium at Lake Como in Italy. This book is a wonderful tribute to one man's passion for theatre, and an example of what we need to ensure that what is gone is not forgotten.
"Remember" is the first word spoken in Marco Micone's powerful play, Beyond the Ruins (Guernica, 80 pages, $10 paper), translated from the French by Jill MacDougall. A father is speaking to his son as they stand by a dried-up fountain in Italy. Luigi is trying to recreate the past, but all his son Nino sees is a deserted village, houses without windows and bereft of people. They are visiting Luigi's parents, who emigrated to Montreal when Luigi was only fifteen, then years later returned to their decaying home in Italy. The play explores the push-pull between generations and cultures as it moves between two times and places: Italy in 1987 and Montreal in 1972 and 1987.
Luigi and his wife Danielle are estranged, their marriage having foundered on the shoals of politics. He spent his days and night fighting for immigrant rights, while she was wrapped up in the struggle for Quebec independence. Increasingly her vision of Quebec demands assimilation rather than accepting difference. "You could easily pass for a real Québécois," she tells him, and his response is a wonderful depiction of the false dualities of hyphenated identities: should he eat pasta or pâté, listen to Vigneault or to Verdi? Luigi has been disowned by his father, so his traditions are no refuge. At one point, he confronts his father: "At least you have a country.... For me, home is nowhere." Caught in the middle of all these adult struggles, young Nino tries to find his own place.
Beyond the Ruins is a taut, compelling exploration of dislocation and family conflict, played out against historical forces: shifting Quebec politics and the still resonating conflict of World War Two. Micone takes on large issues in this play, but presents them simply and strongly through his characters' struggles. There are no easy answers: forgiving is even harder than forgetting, and reconciliation seems to skip a generation. The challenge of moving beyond the ruins, placing the past firmly in its place, may be too much for this family. In the final scene Nino's entreaties that they all go home together seem to fall on deaf ears. The adults remain divided, caught by the past. But at least they're all in the same place, at the same time.
As is the family in Eugene Stickland's wildly comic, nerve-striking play, Some Assembly Required (Coteau, 70 pages, $9.95 paper). It's Christmas Eve, and it's 37 below outside as one nuclear family goes radioactive. The title refers to the unassembled artificial tree in the basement, the basement where one son, Gordon, is hiding out with a BB gun, freaked out by his wife's departure. The "successful" son, Walter, shows up with his down coat and his own troubles, and Stacy's arrival, coatless and on the lam from the mental ward, completes the family picture. Meanwhile, Mother is still flat on her back with her mysterious Condition, and Dad is trying his darnedest to keep things in order, mainly by cleaving to his Rotation, which involves playing his records in the correct order, no matter that at this rate Handel's Messiah won't be due until July. As Dad says, "Christmas can be a treacherous time of year."
This play is as funny on the page as it was in production at Alberta Theatre Projects. When the siblings finally emerge from the basement wars, they mill about with the thawing chicken, wondering, "What would a normal family do in this situation? Watch TV?" This is one of Canada's more dysfunctional families, but at least it's hitting on the roots of the problem. (As when Mother hits a nerve about her daughter's hair while Gordon is in the basement mixing up milkless eggnog with Dad's precious Makita cordless drill.) Still, after many fraught moments, the family does manage to slap together some kind of Christmas, even if the carol singing is at gunpoint. Some Assembly Required is a wonderful festive tonic.
Family secrets are at the heart of The Arab's Mouth (Blizzard, 240 pages, $10.95 paper), Ann-Marie MacDonald's second solo-authored play, successor to the popular Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). It's a rich, sometimes almost indigestible, brew of Freud, Darwin, gothic romance, and myth, served up via a nineteenth-century Scottish family that comes complete with several family skeletons. MacDonald's fertile imagination is in full flight here, what with a mysterious Abbess, a Creature with a secret, a kilted wastrel son, and a determined scientific daughter. Certainly, the plot veers toward excess, but part of the point is that nature is never tidy. And the play's philosophizing is leavened with humorous possibilities, from the role of Puppy-performed by an actor-to the persistent punning (especially the ongoing mix-up of "abyss" and "abbess").
The death of their father means Pearl and Victor are about to receive their inheritance. But the family house isn't the only thing in dispute. What of the mysterious pointed ear trapped in formaldehyde, the inexplicable Egyptian hieroglyphs carved on the cliffs, the strange crying woman...? Flora, the doughty family aunt and keeper of the attic keys, tells Pearl to pay heed to her dreams: "You must endeavour to remember, dear. Your ancestors are trying to tell you something." Pearl is sure that superstition won't provide answers, but she's not convinced science provides the complete code for understanding. As Pearl struggles to reconcile her belief in Darwinian evolution with all the oddities of nature that keep cropping up, Dr. Reid connives to keep secret the true message of the family's "tainted blood". Meanwhile, her brother Victor becomes increasingly addicted to shortbread, the nun cries on the shore, and the attic door finally swings open. The play appears to go galloping madly off in all directions, but method underlies the madness. A surprise appearance from Anubis, god of the underworld, pulls most of the strands together, although they're not neatly tied off.
Saucy Jack, by Sharon Pollock (Blizzard, 60 pages, $10.95 paper), is also set in the late 1800s, but the matter at hand is a serious one: the story of Jack the Ripper. Here Pollock makes use of a theory that the notorious killer was an aristocrat, perhaps even royalty. Jem, the tutor to Prince Albert Victor, has set the scene for murder, hoping to distract suspicion from the prince by implicating their mutual friend Montague. For a change the person at risk is a man, though this betrayal is nowhere near as bloody as all the other murders. The last character is Kate, a woman hired by Jem to play the victims' parts in recreating the Whitechapel killings. The vignettes of the women's lives, cut short by graphic, horrific descriptions of the slaughters, are all in service of a game of loyalty and betrayal being played out by the men.
Pollock's earlier drama, Blood Relations, used role-playing to explore assumptions about the infamous Lizzie Borden. Once again attracted to a murderer's story and using play-acting as a point of entry, Pollock remains interested not in "who did it" but in the ripples of explanations surrounding the murders. Jem's suspicions of the future king, even his own involvement, are in turn suspect because of a head injury that distorts his memories of all the dismembering. Pollock's focus is the deception played out in the trio of friends; still, there is something very unsettling about using one actor to portray all the female victims. Kate is increasingly assertive and, in fact, is eventually free to leave, so perhaps this unease is in keeping with the imbalance of power between the characters, between men and women. Pollock's dissection of male power plays in Saucy Jack is, as ever, disturbing and compelling.
Club Chernobyl, Diane Warren's second play (Coteau, 72 pages, $9.95 paper), presents a wryly dramatic scenario in which death threatens but never delivers. It's opening night at a new theme club with an apocalyptic decor: black walls and broken mirrors. But the entrepreneur, Dallas, isn't having much luck with customers, and his wife Billie seems to be taking a hike. Outside, a storm rages, washing in Gina, a woman who frequently mentions her lack of experience, and Veronica, a woman with much too much experience. Veronica actually surfaces from the flooding basement, and for a time is taken for dead.
Courting the apocalypse seems a dangerous business. Billie returns with news of chaos outside, and both Gina and Veronica see menacing shadows on the roof of the hotel across the way. Veronica has reason to dread the arrival of S, the mystery man responsible for her wraparound tattoos. And Billie is still freaked out by Dallas's nightmares, and by a recurring dream of her own. As the three women take turns wearing Billie's "little black dress", the characters strive for connection in the midst of doom and disintegration. Luckily, connection is still possible in a world that is only flirting with oblivion.
Z: A Meditation on Oppression, Desire and Freedom (Coteau, 72 pages, $9.95 paper) takes us to another history, a shared, lived nightmare. This first play by the noted poet Anne Szumigalski draws on her experiences working with survivors in German concentration camps. The publication is also a record of the first production, by Saskatoon's Twenty-Fifth Street Theatre. Unfortunately, the production photos are dark and hard to read, as is the script in some respects. This is partly due to the production's reliance on dance, notoriously hard to describe in words, as well as to the challenge of imagining how the weight of the poetry would be transformed in performance. The piece is very dense, combining choruses, cantors' laments, recorded voices, and movement sequences with the occasional more conventionally dramatic scene.
Identifiable characters include Sara and Mimi, who are forced to provide sex for other Jewish prisoners; Itzak, a prisoner granted limited powers because of his prowess as a storyteller; and Kaporal Horst sometimes his listener, sometimes his tormentor. As Mimi and Sara try to hold on to their past by desperately reminiscing, as Itzak and Horst joust with words, a group of prisoners act as chorus, as rapists, as hollowed-out prisoners. After the swirl of events, reminiscences, dance, and laments of the first act, the play moves from World War Two to the 1960s and back again. This shift is unfortunate, because the two female tourists it introduces are so unwitting and uninterested in the history of the place they are visiting.
The final interview with the playwright and the director help in picturing the realized production. More than the other plays under review, this publication seems intent on recording what has been done, as the play in turn is a testament to the past. Still, on the page, Z is perhaps most compelling when it turns to storytelling. More important than the individual characters is the necessity that these stories survive. So the need for repetition and return, for the sheer weight of words. The play opens and closes with an unnamed female saying, "I'll tell you again and again the same story." Her story and all the others are what we have as talismans against the times and places where people are turned into numbers. As the play ends, random numbers echo out, challenging us to replace them with people, with stories, with memories.