Reviews: HIGH LIFE and SEEDS

by Lynn on February 28, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following reviews were broadcast on Friday, February 24, 2012 on CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, CIUT 89.5 FM. HIGH LIFE at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts; SEEDS plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until March 10.

The host was Rose Palmieri

1) Good Friday Morning. Our theatre critic and passionate playgoer, Lynn Slotkin, is here with two plays that couldn’t be more different.

Hi Lynn.

What are the plays and what makes them different?

They are HIGH LIFE and SEEDS.

HIGH LIFE is produced by Soulpepper andSEEDS is produced by Crow’s theatre. Both accomplished theatre companies in their own right.

Both play at different theatres in the Young Centre for the Performing Arts and that is the end of their similarity.

HIGH LIFE is a wonderfully ironic title about four low-life thugs who are drug addicts; live to scheme to make easy money, usually involving breaking the law and are planning the perfect crime.

SEEDS is a docudrama about genetically modified crops. It is about all sorts of things but mainly a landmark court case about a simple farmer who took on the multi-national company Monsanto when it sued him for ignoring their license for using their genetically modified seeds in his farm in Saskatchewan.

2) Ok, let’s start with the low-lifes. Tell us about HIGH LIFE. What an ironic title.

It is ironic. Four guys plan a heist. Three of the friends met and bonded in prison.

Dick is the mastermind of schemes to knock off banks. Bug is easily bugged by everything and is very dangerous and very funny.

Donnie has a quaint talent for stealing wallets. Taking the bank cards to the bank and ripping off the accounts and then returning the wallets before they are missed.

He usually steals them from Church get togethers where the purses are left unattended. He is not well. Besides being a drug addict—they all are–his kidneys are the problem. One has failed and the other is bad.

The fourth is Billy, a clean-cut knife welding man who just loves bugging Bug.

The plan is almost fool proof except Donnie has to go to the bathroom during it and things don’t go according to plan.

The buildup to the scheme is hilarious. The planning is hilarious. The waiting for things to fall into place is hilarious and also fraught with tension.

3) Why is it so funny?

Writer Lee MacDougall has such a facility with language, and certainly the language of these guys. He knows how tough guys talk and his dialogue is true to the characters. He knows how to set up a joke that sounds funny. It’s knowing how to juxtapose incongruous points. The result is hilarious.

The air is blue with swear-words—these guys make swearing fashionable. However not one of their words or variations thereof can be said on any radio anywhere, I don’t think. Also MacDougall has such a vivid imagination when it comes to ‘the thing’—that’s what Dick calls his scheme—the thing.

MacDougall writes characters who are multi-layered, full of ticks and idiosyncrasies and you know that they exist somewhere in the world…in prison perhaps or
next door, but they are out there.

Perhaps we might even look closer to the scruffy guy we pass in the street and wonder what’s going on in that mind.

3) And what about SEEDS? A docudrama about genetically modified crops. What are the details?

Written by Annabel Soutar. In a way it’s a David and Goliath story involving the Monsanto mega corporation and Saskatchewan farmer, Percy Schmeiser.

Monsanto had a process whereby they could produce a seed that would produce three times the crops than normal. And that was resistant to the affects of a common pesticide. The idea was that the population was growing rapidly and crops had to keep up to feed the world. Monsanto came up with the idea on how to do it.

And they said that anyone who used their seeds had to take out a license to do it. Well Percy Schmeiser was a very successful farmer in his own right. His farm was 1000 acres.

He didn’t want to use Monsanto’s seeds and didn’t. But the company found out the seeds were in Percy’s fields.

How? Percy said that the seeds could have blown there, been dropped their by insects and birds and might have fallen off trucks bringing the seeds elsewhere. Monsanto sued. Percy fought back all the way to the Supreme Court.

Annabel Soutar’s play is dense with information on philosophy and the meaning of life; on the process of genetic modification; on the science that both agrees and disagrees.

The arguments for and against whizz by at a dizzying rate.

5) Is it too technical? Is it hard to absorb?

The danger is for the audience to think it’s being overwhelmed with information and stop listening. But it’s such an important subject: is the food we eat really safe if it’s been fiddled with? The play asks that question. But Soutar works hard to put the question in context.

And I think that if the audience just relaxes and embraces and listens to the arguments they will see it isn’t overwhelming. Percy in a way is a Canadian everyman. He works hard. He’s respected. He asks tough questions.

Soutar also does a splendid job showing just how dirty matters became when a big corporation went after a little guy they thought was a pushover.

Just on the basis of the play alone, it’s hugely important, informative and infuriating-but in a good
way. I loved how Soutar got me to listen to her play and to be incensed at the inequity of the bullying
and underhanded dealings with big corporations.

6) I would think that the productions of both plays factored in to making them successes or not?

I thought both productions were dandy. Let me start with HIGH LIFE. Stuart Hughes is the director. He stages the men so that they prowl nervously.

He knows how to set up a joke as well. And when the men are waiting for the bank job to complete, the tension can be cut with a switch-blade. You just know something will happen but you don’t know what.

Terrific work from Hughes.

The set is respectable—a leather of sorts couch, some chairs, a table and a fridge where the only food seems to be beer. But it is the acting that works so beautifully to realize this hilarious, sometimes scary play.

As Dick, Diego Matamoros initially seems too fastidious to be an ex-con and junky, but he gets right into it, with his smart, thoughtful quiet way. He can control the other hot heads and does it nicely. As Donnie with the troublesome kidneys, Oliver Dennis is so frail and pale he looks like he will keel over from weakness. He fidgets, he almost twitches and when he’s in the back seat of the car waiting for the heist to go down, and he needs to go to the bathroom, you do cross your legsin sympathy.

As Bug, Michael Hanrahan goes from strength to strength. Unshaven, hunched over, smoking nervously, anything will set him off or bug him then watch out. He thrives in being irritated.

And as Billy Bug’s biggest irritant, Mike Ross is smooth, baby-faced and smiling and nothing scares him. Well yeah, he carries a dangerous knife. I’d be brave too.

7) And now SEEDS. What is a docudrama?

It takes on the form of a documentary. Lots of facts are given directly to the audience. A woman who is the playwright interviews all sorts of people to get information on this subject because she’s writing a play. Much like Annabel Soutar did. While there is no note that says it, I assume that the dialogue is in fact taken from these recordings—every stammer, cough hiccup etc. is relived in the dialogue. A problem here is that occasionally a character appears to have forgotten something and corrects himself. The audience might think in fact the actor forgot. Not so.

Director Chris Abraham has his gifted cast talk to us about our definition of life before the show starts. They come into the audience with clipboards etc. There is a video screen with projections, pictures etc.

There are models of DNA the individual makeup of each person. Interspersed with this is the actual story of Percy Schmeiser.

The set by Lorenzo Savoini is covered in equipment, desks, cameras for the videos…all technical, but never distancing.

8) With all this information, does it make for a boring evening?

Far from it. As I said, you just have to sit and listen to the information that comes at you. You will see the arguments, the shiftiness, the integrity of Percy Schmeiser and the curiosity of the playwright.

I found it as gripping and compelling as any play I’ve seen recently. The cast is stellar.

As Percy, Eric Peterson is a towering presence—no joke intended—Mr. Peterson is short—but he lends Percy such integrity, such tenacity. It is a wonderful, true performance.

As the Playwright, Lisa Riipo-Martell–life imitates art. The playwright is pregnant and so is Ms Riipo-Martell.
She is bursting with life and curiosity. She brings out the burning intelligence when she realizes some information she is being told is not true. The look that Riipo-Martell gives made me sit up in my seat.

And in various roles including the lawyer for Monsanto, Tanja Jacobs is just so emotional and dangerous. She is full of attitude and fierceness. A terrific performance. The whole cast is wonderful.

So, two different plays, both wonderfully written and performed.

Two reasons to go to the theatre.

Thanks Lynn. That was Lynn Slotkin our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at

HIGH LIFE plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until March 28:; 416-866-8666

SEEDS plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until March 10:

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