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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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.