by Lynn on October 24, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer


 At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs, Toronto. Written by Sarah Berthiaume. Translated by Nadine Desroches. Directed by Ted Witzel. Designed by Gillian Gallow. Lighting by Bonnie Beecher. Composer and Sound Design by Richard Feren. Projection Designer, Cameron Davis. Starring: Kate Corbett, Ryan Cunningham, Francois Klanfer, Grace Lynn Kung.

Produced by Canadian Stage Company. Plays until Oct. 27.

Playwright Sarah Berthiaume thinks big. She has filled Yukonstyle, now playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs, and The Flood Thereafter, her previous play for Canadian Stage Company, with epic, mythic references.

With The Flood Thereafter she reworked the tale of Odysseus meeting the Sirens and put it in a Canadian setting. With Yukonstyle she has set her play in the vast, lonely north, Whitehorse, Yukon to be exact. There are references to Aboriginal symbolism; running away to find yourself and your identity; being haunted by the memory of an absent parent, not knowing part of your history. There is also tenuous reference to the trial of Robert Picton, the BC farmer found guilty of some of the gruesome murders of several Vancouver prostitutes.

Kate is a 20 something, waif-like, inappropriately dressed hitchhiker who has managed to find herself on the road to Whitehorse. We don’t know where she came from or why she’s going to Whitehorse. She is picked up by Yuko, a young Japanese woman who is the short order cook in the local restaurant. Yuko escaped Japan for Whitehorse because that was as far away from Japan and the Japanese as she could arrange. She brings Kate home with her for some warmth and a place to sleep. This does not go down too well with Garin, an Aboriginal man, working as a dishwasher in the same restaurant as Yuko. They are lovers and so this intruder is not appreciated. But it’s Yuko’s place so Garin keeps quiet. And finally there is Pops, Garin’s father, a French Canadian. He married a prostitute; they had a boy they named Garin, and then she took off and disappeared.

For some reason Kate is fixated on the Robert Picton story and his on-going trial at the times. She plays the radio constantly to hear about the trial. In the background to the play is the hint that Garin’s mother might have been one of Pictor’s victims. This haunts Garin since his father isn’t telling him anything about his mother.

Pops has his own issues, possible dementia being one of them. He keeps seeing a raven in his imagination. He knows from this symbol of impending death that he is not long for  this world.

Berthiaume has created a huge, desolate, metaphoric world for these characters to house the many and various issues. She intersperses her dialogue with sections of poetry, spoken almost like soliloquys by her characters. All very well and good. But one also likes a bit of logical playwriting to go with it. And there are too many loose ends, holes if you will, in the story-telling here. Where does Kate come from? She had to have come miles dressed as if it was summer. Most of the time Kate seems like a twit. So her being fixated on the Picton trial comes from no-where. Is this just a trick by Berthiaume to incorporate that story into her play, so the director can say this play is about the missing and murdered women? If so it’s done poorly. The connection is just too tenuous. I also found the poetry much more vivid and better written than

(As an aside, for a truly gripping story about this subject, see the upcoming Canadian Stage Company production of London Road, a true story of a serial killer in England who murdered several prostitutes and how the neighbours reacted to the news. All I could think about while watching this British story was Robert Picton and his sad victims in British Columbia.)

Director Ted Witzel is one of two directors (the other is Ker Wells) who are the first graduates of the York University/Canadian Stage MFA in Stage Directing program. He has a vivid sense of imagery and how to create that desolate world. Together with sound designer, Richard Feren, and lighting designer Bonnie Beecher we hear the constant howling of the unforgiving wind and see that dull grey light that can make the place oppressive. There is also a cold forbidding in Gillian Gallow’s spare set.

So while Witzel has created that mysterious, cold world of the play, he is not as accomplished on the ordinary nuts and bolts of staging. Too often characters don’t connect because of the way he has placed them. Too often a character sits on a sofa centre stage, addressing another character behind him/her and upstage. Which means the character on the sofa has to do about a 180˚ turn to his/her left to see and talk to the other character. Why would the director upstage one of his characters that way? After a while of watching this repeatedly, one gets a sympathetic cramp in one’s neck.

The acting is uniformly energetic and emotional although Grace Lynn Kung as Yuko tends to mumble her lines. As Kate, Kate Corbett is fine as the perky, dim Kate. As Garin, Ryan Cunningham reveals his pent up rage and violent thoughts in a even way. As Pops, it’s a pleasant surprise to see Francois Klanfer on a stage after an absence. He is crazed, troubled and obviously hiding many secrets. And when she wasn’t mumbling, Grace Lynn Kung as Yuko has a nice confidence and edge.

I must confess, I found both The Flood Thereafter and Yukonstyle hard going. The plays are big in ideas but klunky and dreary in actually getting the point across.

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