by Drew Rowsome - Photos by Brett Peterson North and Natalie Novak
Before Even this Old Town was a Forest begins, there is the now ubiquitous thanks to former keepers of the land the theatre, and Toronto, now stands on. What follows is a gently satirical, riotously funny expansion of that theme. A city takes pride in its history, but it thrives because of its myths. Birdtown and Swanville (Family Story) nestles a moment of Toronto's history amidst two wondrous tales.
Cara Gee (Family Story, Arigato Tokyo) is a Native Canadian woman abandoned by her family and tribe - who first settled this land though only in the summer when it is bearable - because her restless leg syndrome has spread to an arm. She makes first contact with a British family who have travelled to this new world for various reasons that are complicated, comic and tragic. Stir in a flying/dancing nun, who is more likely a trickster, played with infectious glee and diva-esque flamboyance by William Ellis, and the culture clash becomes a demented debate on the true state of the Canadian soul.
Writer/director Aurora Stewart de Pena writes in a epic fashion studded with non sequiturs. Glorious turns of phrase where embroidering is equated with painting ceramic monkeys, "lovely things" fall from a poet's mouth "like baby teeth," and mysterious woolly mammoths stomp down to the river to wash "unfortunate blood" from their tusks. The new arrivals envision a city of organized rectangles, Gee's Abequa envisions circles. And it is patiently explained to her that a park is a "controlled forest." The recurring metaphors make the declamations of the lusty poet Norman Yeung plausible but it is a very bleak commentary on the relevance of art.
To avoid whimsy, de Pena stirs in foreboding dark images, reminding us that living in what is now Toronto in 1735 was difficult and dangerous. And that what Toronto was to become might not be much better. While the script is evocative and addictive, the direction is slack with stylization and naturalism mixing uncomfortably. Part of this is practical in order to move the simple but clever props on and off the stage area. At times this breaking of the fourth wall is brilliant: the very first image and Ellis strutting offstage, casually tilting his head so that his enormous headdress doesn't collide with the pillars holding up the ceiling, is masterful. At times it is tragic: when the cast is choreographed in an attempt to self-consciously distract from being stage crew, with poor Ellis suffering the worst in a routine that would have been hilarious at half the length.
The same fission occurs in the acting with deadpan declamation butted up against extreme passion. Frequently this works to wonderful comic effect: when hunky but lunkheaded Jon Blair's pig farmer unveils a stewed deer to the disdain of his beloved would-be-shepherd Naomi Skwarna. He cries in anguish, "I should have gathered." That Skwarna and Gee are developing a hot lesbian surtext only accentuates his pain. That Leung and the overbearing sister Donna Maloney can't keep their hands off each other, further drives in the knife. Blair has a natural charisma, a wide-eyed baby face atop a hairy-chested beefcake bod, and his experience as a comedian allows him to fearlessly utter the most outrageous lines with utter sincerity, or to be the butt of a sight gag, all while forcing his vocal inflections to devolve from sonorous to castrated - another metaphor for Toronto.
Birdtown and Swanville have taken an awkward space and adapted it to emphasize the distancing effect it creates. We are always aware of watching this epic unfold. There are projections by Sofia Bohdanowicz, props that are literal sculptures by Gustavo Crequera Benjumea and James van der Kleyn, and a soundscape by Alia O'Brien and Andrew Zuckerman that mashes Angelo Badalamenti, horror sound effects and '80s pop. The night I attended, the audience was sadly sparse, making the ambitions of Even this Old Town was a Forest a bit frazzled, the wittiness left thirsting for laughter. I hope it finds the audience it deserves so it can grow, circular and rectangular, into the mirthful myth-making it actually is.
Even this Old Town was a Forest runs until Sun, Oct 23 at the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St W.