SummerWorks: Fire & ice, & the terrible toll of oil production & transport in powerful Lac/Athabasca

LacAthabasca-400x320Started my SummerWorks 2015 adventures at Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) last night, with the opening of Theatre Free Radical’s production of Len Falkenstein’s Lac/Athabasca, directed by Falkenstein and running in the Mainspace.

Oil and water, crossing over land and across provinces. Like the fur traders of Canada’s infancy, you gotta get the product to market. But at what cost?

Inspired by the tragic train disaster at Lac Mégantic, Lac/Athabasca is not a documentary, but a geographical, socio-political commentary on corporate greed, muzzled scientists, climate change and an accident that devastates a small town. And there’s a scary, ancient and mysterious creature that lurks in the woods.

Using storytelling, projected imagery and a model train surrounded by a miniature village, Lac/Athabasca gets at the heart of a town’s grief, the vastness of a glacier landscape, and the horror of the rail accident that destroys a large portion of the town and kills many of its inhabitants – the latter given added poignancy due to the child-like size of the scene.

The ensemble cast – Emily Bossé, Rebekah Chassé, Jean-Michel Cliché, Alex Donovan and Jake Martin – does a remarkable job of weaving this story, shifting in and out of character, location and time period. Some interesting character parallels emerge: Chassé’s oil sands tour guide and Martin’s glacier tour guide – all put-on cheerfulness and spinning the situation – ‘no problems here.’ Bossé’s young Aboriginal woman and exotic dancer – both thrown into unsavory and dangerous arrangements by circumstance, but maintaining their dignity and more acutely aware of their situations than they’re given credit for.

Moments that especially stand out are those between two oil sands company biologists and the eye-witness accounts of the town survivors. Donovan is wide-eyed and curious as the new scientist guy, and has discovered some troubling chemical facts about the local river and lake that he wants to share; Chassé is jaded, damaged and wary as the more seasoned scientist, seeing no use in reporting her younger colleague’s findings, as these will be spun and denied by the corporate powers that be – not to mention professionally risky. The survivors of the train derailment and oil explosion (Bossé, Chassé, Cliche and Martin) each bring out tiny buildings with them, telling us what it was, and who lived or worked there as they set the scene; Chassé is particularly heartbreaking as the town’s Mayor, describing each building and inhabitant with much love and respect, a catch in her throat even as she vows that they will rebuild.

And then there’s that unseen beast. In the past, English (Donovan) and French (Martin) fur traders, and in the present, the female biologist (Chassé), encounter something terrible in the woods. Cliche’s Thierry, an ambitious and adorably awkward Lac Madawaska resident who travelled west to make a pile of cash at Ft. McMurray (aka Ft. McMoney), like Donovan’s biologist, makes a grisly discovery in the slime. And no one wants to talk about mutations – natural or otherwise.

Water and oil – risking the sustainability of a precious, life-giving resource to extract an extremely lucrative resource. And what will you create – or awaken – as you process those oil sands, extract that oil and deposit the waste water in tailings ponds?

With shouts to Eric Hill for the haunting original music, and Mike Johnston for the evocative set and projection design.

As I sat down to write my notes after the show last night, thinking about the monster, I was reminded of some lyrics from “Synchronicity II” by The Police:
Many miles away, something crawls from the slime at the
Bottom of a dark Scottish lake…

Fire and ice, and the terrible toll of oil production and transport in Theatre Free Radical’s powerful production of Lac/Athabasca.

Lac/Athabasca continues at the TPM Mainspace until August 15 – see their show page for exact dates/times.

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Author: life with more cowbell

Arts/culture social bloggerfly & Elwood P. Dowd disciple. Likes playing with words. A lot. Toronto

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