The oil industry on trial for crimes against humanity in the gripping, intimate Athabasca

David S. Craig & Richard Greenblatt. Set & costume design by Anahita Dehbonehie. Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. Photo by Samantha Gaetz.

 

Convergence Theatre presents the world premiere of Athabasca, created and performed by David S. Craig and Richard Greenblatt, and directed by Aaron Willis, assisted by Keshia Palm (who also appears as Huan, the Executive Assistant). A gripping two-hander, the audience gets an intimate, fly-on-the-wall perspective as a journalist and an oil industry executive go head-to-head over the environmental and human tolls of fossil fuel production and use. Part of the Toronto Fringe’s Next Stage Theatre Festival, it’s running at 77 Mowat Avenue, Toronto (a Toronto Carpet Factory space), the first site-specific production in the history of the fest.

Oil industry senior executive and gifted lobbyist/spin doctor Tom (David S. Craig) is being golden parachuted out of his position at Sol Oil, a Fort McMurray-based company that’s been touting the benefits its “green” oil production. It’s his last day at the office, and as he pushes back against the ridiculously prohibitive terms of his exit/non-disclosure agreement, he’s visited by Max (Richard Greenblatt), a journalist from The Outdoorsman, who’s there to do a profile piece interview.

Max’s line of questioning, prescribed by Tom’s successor, goes off script and the true nature of his visit is revealed. Max is an environmental activist, driven to extreme measures; and he proceeds to put Tom on trial as a proxy for the oil industry and its crimes against humanity and the environment. The heated debate that follows forces personal and professional revelations and confessions from both men. Will Tom be able to finesse his way out of this and talk Max out of his end game? Will Max realize that targeting one executive and one oil company won’t stop the oil industry’s work—or the public’s appetite for fossil fuels?

Outstanding work from Craig and Greenblatt in this intense, insightful, darkly funny and poignant two-hander—keeping us at the edge of our seats, guessing what these two characters will do next. Craig’s performance as Tom is the picture-perfect embodiment of the slick, smooth talking senior public affairs executive. Flippant, entitled and self-interested, and eloquent in his bullshittery, Tom is forced to really pay attention to the environmental and health impacts of the oil industry—and, more critically, answer for his and the industry’s actions. Greenblatt does a remarkable balancing act with Max, rounding out the desperate nature of Max’s mission with thoughtful, intelligent argument. Armed with an arsenal of facts, figures and pointed questions to put Tom on the hot seat, Max isn’t a bad guy; he’s mad as hell and doesn’t want to take it anymore.

Both Tom and Max present good, solid—although conflicting—points of view. It’s a complex issue with no easy answers. The only thing for certain is that the fragile balance between the economic and environmental impacts of the fuels we produce and use is on all of us.

Athabasca continues at 77 Mowat Avenue until January 20 every night at 7:30 pm except for no show tonight (January 15); good signage and production folks will guide your way. At this point, the run is sold out—so if you don’t already have tix and want to take a chance at the door, best to get there early.

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You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious & deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Katherine Cullen & Britta Johnson in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Better late than never to the party, as I finally got out to see Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson’s SummerWorks hit Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy, directed by Aaron Willis—now in its final week in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Written and performed by Cullen and Johnson, who also collaborated on the lyrics, with music by Johnson, Stupidhead! is a part musical, part stand-up, part personal storytelling journey of Cullen’s experience living with dyslexia.

Stupidhead! is Cullen’s childhood dream of being in a musical come true. And, despite her lack of training, experience and self-reported ability, she was determined to make it happen; and recruited her good friend Johnson to help her write the music. Johnson joins her onstage, accompanying her on piano and back-up vocals—reacting to Cullen’s performance throughout, sometimes cracking up along with the audience.

Pointing out that dyslexia affects people differently, Cullen has no trouble with reading and writing—and as a child enjoyed escaping into writing poetry, and stories about the adventures of a silly koala and rabbit. Diagnosed at a young age, Cullen relates her struggles with math, organizational skills and directions, finding herself mentally lost at school and physically lost in her own neighbourhood—and, above all, labelled. And that label put her in the position of having to deal with ignorance and lack of compassion from others, making her sense of otherness feel even more isolating and humiliating, and becoming a part of her identity.

Her anecdotes about trying to fit in are both hilarious and moving—from her grade three poetry contest nemesis (now a CFL football player), to being lost on her own street, to two weeks in a puppet camp in Vermont as a young adult and her love of Jesus Christ Superstar—all delivered with genuine feeling and gusto. While it’s a show about the “glamour of failure,” it’s also a show about throwing off the chains of shame and isolation. In the end, Cullen avoids tying it up neatly, but emerges from the darker moments of her experience into a place of hope and determination.

Stupidhead!
Katherine Cullen in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

Cullen shines onstage. An engaging, genuine and charming performer, she’s gutsy and kick-ass, but also vulnerable and fragile. As she schools us on dyslexia, she gives us the straight goods about what it’s like to live inside her head. And she gives ‘er with the music, putting her all into performing the songs, from belted out numbers to gentle, heartfelt ballads. She and Johnson make a terrific duo. Johnson is pretty damn funny herself; and there’s a lovely tender moment of compassion and understanding between them that rings with friendship and love. And their anthem of “don’t give up!” brought tears to my eyes.

With big shouts to set designer Anahita Dehbonehie and lighting designer Jennifer Lennon for the cool and beautiful neurosciencey environment.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious and deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Stupidhead! continues in the TPM Mainspace, closing on Apr 2; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529. Check out Hallie Seline’s interview with Cullen and Johnson for In the Greenroom.

And here’s the trailer: