The incendiary aftermath of lives in distress in the powerful, theatrical After the Fire

Louise Lambert, Jesse Gervais, Sheldon Elter & Kaitlyn Riordan. Set & costume design by Alison Yanota. Lighting design by Kaileigh Krysztofiak. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts, in association with Native Earth Performing Arts and The Theatre Centre, opened the world premiere of Matthew MacKenzie’s powerful, theatrical After the Fire at The Theatre Centre last night. Directed by Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, assisted by Theresa Cutknife, the play follows two couples in the aftermath of the Fort McMurray fire—the personal, environmental and economic devastation of the disaster sparking volatile dynamics and personal revelations within the group. And a stark reminder of how precious and fragile our environment is—and how we need to examine our relationship with the land and water.

The pleasant, transporting scent of sage, sweet grass and tobacco wafts over us as we sit, in the round (rectangle, actually), a recognition of the four corners—North, South, East and West—and an Elder’s opening night prayer and reminder to respect, protect and hold sacred the water and the land. Mother Earth’s gifts have been razed by flames in Fort McMurray; the set (designed by Alison Yanota) a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a large pile of wood chips and ash dominating centre stage, with a menacing tentacle-like structure hovering above. Like a dead tree dripping crude oil, its shadow resembling a dinosaur skeleton in the red light (lighting design by Kaileigh Krysztofiak). And a touch of normalcy and Canadiana:  a box of Timbits and Timmies coffee cups sit atop the ash pile.

Laura (Kaitlyn Riordan) and Barry (Sheldon Elter) lost their home in the Fort McMurray fire; and they and their daughter are currently living with Laura’s younger sister Carmell (Louise Lambert), who has recently split up with her husband Ty (Jesse Gervais), and her two kids. Carmell is a local girls’ hockey team coach and Laura is their trainer; both have daughters on the team, bff cousins. Still reeling from the personal and community disaster of the fire, they’re on a mission tonight after the hockey game: the men are digging a hole out in the scorched forest and the women are en route to the tailings pond to dispose of something.

Riordan does an excellent job of driving the urgency of their situation, quashing Laura’s distress with determination and comic observation; tightly wound, fastidious and prim—the “responsible” older sister. A perfect foil as Laura’s “wild” younger sister, Lambert brings a world-wise, no-fucks-given edge; Carmell has dealt with some serious shit in her life, including her addict ex. And although the two are polar opposites and drive each other crazy, there’s a solid bond of sisterhood despite their differences. As the men take turns digging the hole, we see another pair of opposites emerge. Elter gives a solid, compelling performance as Barry; silent and pensive, and seething underneath it all, Barry’s found himself in a place of deep reflection. Re-examining his relationship with his Indigenous heritage and to the land since the fire, he’s particularly sensitive to the condition of the local flora and fauna. Gervais’ energetic, chatty man child Ty is a bundle of nervous recovering addict energy; unashamedly unapologetic for working in the oil industry, there’s more than meets the eye. Ty also demonstrates heart-felt honesty and care, and go-to resilience—a result of his inward exploration and recovery process.

Trying to keep it all together in the face of a dire situation, hot on the heels of their world actually on fire, each character is forced to deal with the fire burning out of control in his/her life. The Fort McMurray fire, possibly caused by humans, tripped off a series of responses and actions beyond the disaster itself, and renewed reflection and debate on environmental protection vs. economic benefits. As these characters take stock of their place in and personal impact on the world—on both a small and large scale—we’re reminded how a small spark on an individual level can create huge, far-reaching consequences that impact many.

After the Fire continues at the Theatre Centre to January 19; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-538-0988. It’s a short run, so get on it.

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SummerWorks: Three strangers reach out for connection in a city on fire in quirky, dark, thoughtful The Tall Building

TheTallBuilding-400x267A city on fire. Coyotes, and other wild and domestic animals wander the streets as people flee the flames and smoke to seek refuge in a safe place, on higher ground. The city has run out of firefighters. The mayor is nowhere to be found and rumour has it that she’s abandoned the city, hiding out in an underground bunker – or dead.

This is the world of It Could Still Happen’s production of The Tall Building, written/directed by Jill Connell – running at the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace for SummerWorks.

It is in this world that three unlikely relationships emerge: Sulla (Molly Flood), a young woman with a man’s name who always wears the same pair of jeans and is good at picking off coyotes with a rifle; the Assassin (Clinton Carew) who lives above her, from the Brotherhood of Assassins, believed to be the cause of all the fires; and the Boy (Philip Nozuka) who lives alone across the hall and writes a self-published community paper called City Streets, which he sets out on the newspaper rack at the local 7-Eleven (where he gets all his groceries). The Boy wants to interview Sulla for the paper because he finds her interesting. The Assassin wants to kill her. Sulla just wants to get out, go outside – go shopping maybe – but she can’t bring herself to leave or move to another apartment. And she doesn’t want people to know who she is. Throughout the course of the action, they get updates on the state of emergency from the radio via updates from Radio 1 (Ishan Davé) and Radio 2 (Brett Donahue).

Excellent work from the cast on this dystopic, near future tale of urban destruction and personal connections. Flood brings some lovely layers to Sulla, a haunted, guarded and cynical young woman, strong and fearless, yet so vulnerable and sad. Carew is comically ominous as the Assassin, a hooded, solitary professional who narrates his life aloud and reveals his role to the others. Is he just bored or is he showing off or overstating his abilities? Nozuka is delightful as the home-schooled Boy, bright and imaginative, precocious and brimming with a can-do positive attitude; he’s making the best of the situation, but he too knows that they can’t keep going the way they are – and he wants to be ready. All three are lost, abandoned and desperately longing for human contact – touch. Even the two radio guys (Davé and Donahue) have a deep, poignant connection, as one is out in the field reporting back to the station, while the other keeps listeners abreast of what’s going on. Everyone’s waiting out the fire, hoping for a change in the weather, something. Something to make things better so they can pick up the pieces and rebuild from the ashes. One thing for sure is nothing will ever be the same.

With big shouts to set/lighting designer Joe Pagnan for the multi-level scaffolding structure, which allows for a multi-layered playing space that features some acrobatic, jungle gym-like staging. The red on air light and fog set us firmly in the emergent, smoky environment of this world. And shouts to It Could Still Happen for a really cool, cleverly designed program – it’s a copy of City Streets, with three pieces, each written from the point of view of the three main characters, with production credits on the back page.

Three strangers reach out for connection in a high-rise above a city on fire in the quirky, dark and thoughtful The Tall Building.

The Tall Building has two more performances at the TPM Backspace: tonight (Sat, Aug 15) at 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow (Sun, Aug 16) at 3:00 p.m.