The Crackwalker: the futility of 36 years of progress
by Drew Rowsome- photos by Joseph Michael Photography
The Crackwalker was first produced in 1980 and was a sensation. Revived for Factory Theatre's Naked Season, The Crackwalker is still a shocker with the addition of an almost overwhelming patina of sadness that the play isn't dated in the least. These people scrabbling to survive are, 36 years later, no longer a sad problem happening somewhere else, they are our neighbours and no closer to climbing the ladder of success. Sexual violence and rape, and the ambiguities that make it painful, are fresh wounds post-Ghomeishi. The rights of the disabled are still an endless debate bouncing between condescension and empathy. And the hard futile work of social workers is demonized while a criminal lies in state at City Hall. And, to add another layer of condemnation, author/director Judith Thompson has stirred in references to the shattered glory of Native Canadians.
The Crackwalker veers from comedy to tragedy to polemic with barely a pause for breath. Passages of writing work extraordinarily well with a rawness that keeps the audience off balance - it is impossible to find a character to root for and, as it is set in the semi-round with seats on the stage, we are simultaneously encouraged to identify with and also look down on the struggling protagonists. When it works, the audience is on the edge of their seats, when it doesn't, it is just uncomfortable. A scene that lacerates the heart is followed by an explanatory monologue that dissipates the tension and sometimes just mystifies. The basic text is very real to life but very disturbing theatre.
There is a similar brilliance and imbalance to the thematic structure. The always compelling Waawaate Fobister, of Agokwe fame, is a framing device, required to interpretive dance, become scenery, cover scene changes, and sometimes become a character. He does what he can but still feels like a solution to the Naked Season's mission (stripping away the scenery and props to put focus on the text and performances) instead of an artistic choice. At one point, portraying a stove of all things, he is integral and pitch perfect, at other times he is, while powerful to watch, a puzzling distraction.
The actors are committed and are outstanding despite having to bridge whiplash-inducing mood swings. Yolanda Bonnell as Theresa, the "you're just slow" center of the storm, radiates innocence even at her most cunning. She also gives a sexual voice to the often disenfranchised disabled and the big reveal, involving the First Nations-styled painting dominating the stage, points out just what a glowing erotic presence her guileless conniving has created. It is a tricky role that Bonnell never talks down to and thus makes her hunger for, in equal measure, "Tim Horny's" doughnuts, love and respect, palpably painful.
Claire Armstrong who played witty and brittle so well in Rock and Liver, gives dignity and strength to a woman downtrodden and flailing. A monologue that is key to the whole play is a showstopping moment as she describes a garland of flowers at a funeral,
They don't hide anything though. They just make you look harder. You just gotta look harder.
Armstrong does what the harshness demands, makes us look at the text as it is rather than "looking harder" because of the distractions in the set design and conception. She is ruthlessly honest and very, very good. Her main sparring partner is Greg Gale who, as he did in His Greatness, exudes sexiness while being a macho monster. Slight hesitations and a panic in his eyes lets the audience see the humanity that is smothered in frustration, thwarted ambition, panic and attempts to be a stud. He marvels of his drinking buddy-in-crime the mayor (another uncomfortable jab of recent history),
He has like a hundred books. I seen 'em. Words in them this long and he knows what they mean, but he don't let it on.
He manages to be calculating, inarticulate, dismissive and full of romantic longing by telling Armstrong that he came back for her, "Because it's dog shit without you." He is the man we can't help but be drawn to and be utterly repelled by. His supposed opposite is his acolyte played by Stephen Joffe who has already shown a remarkable range in Freda and Jem's Best of the Week and Like a Generation. Joffe goes from lost and lovelorn romantic hero, to complete madness while carrying the audience along - his big scene is excruciating to watch, we are indicted by our identification. Unfortunately he is also saddled with some of the interpretive movement and, while acquitted well with perhaps just a touch too much showiness, it breaks the spell and throughline of the performance.
The Crackwalker is not a comfortable evening at the theatre, though the opening night audience, eager to laugh, found much humour and was able to return to gossip and expiated guilt as soon as the lights went up. By not telling us what to think The Crackwalker is able to sink in and disturbing moments keep surfacing as I try to formulate what I think. By trying to give the proceedings a mythic resonance, that is already there in the characters and text, through set design and symbolism, this production betrays the idea of the Naked Season and muddles what is already a contradictory and difficult play.
The Crackwalker runs until Sun, April 10 at Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst St. factorytheatre.ca