Monday 29 October 2012

Switch off the I-Pad and go see The Unplugging

Tribalism. Ostracism. Survival. Family. These are the four pillars of Yvette Nolan's The Unplugging that finishes its run at ACT's Review Theatre this week.  The script affected me the way a typical Alice Munro short story does -- crisp; pungent; poignant with honest voices from people we would all know as neighbours.

The play is a three-hander set in a bitterly cold and black North winter environment due to a crash of the grid, a systemic "unplugging" that never fixes itself. In its wake two women have been outcast from their home village as loners and gripers and independent souls. Some community : one not unlike Jonestown, Guyana in the late 70's where male repression is key.

Thus the women, Elena and Bernadette, find themselves having to hustle up shelter and food miles from home in the tundra with none of life's comforting cheats as we know them -- no electricity, no stores with stocked shelves, just the odd tin of food cached in hunters' cabins. To survive even a few days they must rebirth some core survival skills their kinfolk introduced them to decades back. Snaring rabbits is big, also "catching" a moose.

Although Nolan's working title to the play was Two Old Women, in the current staging Bernadette (Bern) is obviously the younger by a decade or more than Elena, the elder. This sets Bern up nicely for some turns with 20-something Seamus ("Shame us!") when after three months he crashes the two-fer society Elena and Bern have created. Bern likes sex and is generous in sharing it. Elena mostly aches at all this dalliance and intrusion. The storyline is redolent of Charles Frazier's brilliant U.S. civil war piece Cold Mountain.

The Unplugging is obviously set in some near-future apocalypse in North America. But as our family has learned from two decades in an off-the-grid cabin in the Cariboo, voluntary simplicity loses a bit of its Walden Pond appeal when the mercury hits -40.  Of such lifestyles, Elena recalls her feisty self-reliant grandma who repeatedly ran away from the bonds of a nursing home and died in the bush : "She never really trusted the technology. Never used a bank card. Drove an ancient truck with a standard transmission. Fixed things instead of throwing them out." And fixing things in Elena's raw new world includes personalities and neuroses and social relations, starting with herself.

Director Lois Anderson honours Nolan's insights remarkably. She is spot-on in her casting of actor Margo Kane, a Cree-Saulteaux, as Elena. Kane's version is lifted from the Sophia wisdom tradition of "beingness" and inner calm but also betrays dollops of existential angst. (Playwright Nolan is herself of Algonquin and Irish stock.)

Jean Griffin as Bern is edgy and sarcastic and naive and loving all at once. Seamus teaches her that she may be a more generous soul than she gives herself credit for. While honest in her rendering of the Nolan script, Griffin needed more blocking variety and stage business to complete her role.

Anton Lipovetsky is just the right blend of innocent-&-clever, not unlike the charming Lucentio he portrayed in Bard's Shrew last summer. As the play unfolds he shows he's learned some zen-like empathy from each of these women as the three of them become, if but fleetingly, a family.

The score and soundscape behind the piece by Alison Jenkins are an inspired montage : sort of Leslie Feist meets Inuit throat singers. Drew Facey's set of sliding screens evokes midwinter blues and whites amidst stylized aspens and birch -- together they plead with the characters to find redemption in all this harshness around them. Perfect minimalist stage props encourage the process, as does Bern's ratty clump of sweaters and leggings one all but smells.

By way of context, writer Nolan advises the play was a full 10 years in the conjuring but then found a publication draft completed in just 90 days. A long gestation but a noteworthy final product : her hand is deft and clever and will produce more no doubt.

People who kvetch about so much "predictable, safe theatre" in Vancouver owe it to themselves to take in this idiosyncratic and offbeat and timely story that suits the Review stage perfectly.


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