by Lynn on March 22, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Factory Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Yvette Nolan
Directed by Nina Lee Aquino
Set by Camellia Koo
Costumes by Joanna Yu
Lighting by Michelle Ramsay
Sound by Romeo Candido
Movement by Clare Preuss
Starring: Umed Amin
Diana Belshaw
Allegra Fulton

The Unplugging has a kernel of an interesting idea that unfortunately is undeveloped and unfinished.

The Story. Two old women, Elena and Bern, have been banished from their community into the wilderness because they were not useful, past child-bearing age. They fight howling winds and a barren landscape to find shelter and food. Fortunately as a young child Elena was taught to hunt, fish and gather by her grandmother, so she is able to find food in that desolate wilderness. She teaches Bern as well, whose only longing is for sex.

There has been some kind of apocalyptic event that destroyed all electricity and left Elena and Bern’s indigenous community/city/village in darkness, with no (internet) access to communication to the outside world. Or perhaps that community is representative of the world.

Seamus is another exile (he says) from the community, who finds his way to Elena and Bern. Elena is wary. Bern is excited because this young man will provide her with her much missed sex. They get into it pretty quickly. Elena and Bern share their meager food with Seamus and of course hope he pulls his weight while he’s there with them. Then matters take a turn. The simple community of two that Elena and Bern have created for themselves might be in jeopardy until Seamus makes them an offer they find intriguing.

The Production. Camellia Koo has designed a set of white, stark, barrenness. The back drop is white. The ground looks like a wide expanse of snow with ridges of snow that suggest the abandoned shelter Elena and Bern find on their journey. Romeo Candido has created the sound of howling, whistling wind. It pervades much of the first scene, and makes hearing what they have to say, difficult. When the two woman find shelter mercifully the noise stops. There is effective lighting by Michelle Ramsay as the sun rises and sets in a patter that spreads across the backdrop. Clare Preuss provides movement that has echoes of Aboriginal dance or stylized physical expression.

There certainly is a sense of effort as Elena (Diana Belshaw) and Bern (Allegra Fulton) trudge through the fierce wind and cold, with Elena collapsing in the snow and Bern standing over her, urging her on. One just wishes for more variation in Nina Lee Aquino’s direction to give a sense of drama, urgency, desperation. One also wishes for it to be in Nolan’s play to begin with. There seems to be too much dead air, pauses for no reason resulting in a slow pace. When Seamus appears one would have expected some kind of shifting of power, a heightening of suspense, but again, with little help from the text and from the direction there is no sense of danger or intrigue.

The characters seem to skim the surface and so the actors have little to work with. Diana Belshaw is brooding and bitter as Elena. She has had to leave her family. Belshaw does suggest concern when Seamus says that people in their community are starving and dying from disease. As Bern, Allegra Fulton is the more optimistic, joyful of the two women. When she says she misses sex, Fulton fills that comment with deep rooted frustration and yet pleasure in the memory of more physically fulfilled times. Umed Amin as Seamus should bring a sense of danger, an intruder amongst their midst, but the text just doesn’t provide it. Amin plays Seamus as more an innocent than a man with ulterior motives.

Comment. Writer, Yvette Nolan got her idea for The Unplugging from an Athabaskan story. Nolan’s original title for the play was Two Old Women, which might have been more apt. It’s not clear if the two women were banished before, after or during the loss of all power. We do learn from Seamus that the community they left is run by men. They make the decisions but don’t seem to be able to cope with the results of the ‘unplugging.’ Without refrigeration food is rotting. Food is scarce. The modern age has not prepared anyone to hunt and gather food. Disease is rampant and people are dying. Elena immediately thinks of her family yet for some reason Yvette Nolan does not have them decide to go back then and there. Why not? Elena and Bern are now considerably useful to their dying community. They can save them with their knowledge. They can shift the power from the men who know nothing to these women who can save them. It’s a logical question—why don’t the women go back? I think it’s a weakness in the play that they don’t even consider it. There is a twist in the story but just seems unsatisfying and not fleshed out enough. The play doesn’t conclude satisfactorily. It just stops, a totally different thing. Rather than The Unplugging, a more apt title would have been The Unravelling.

An aside. I thought it a bold move that Nina Lee Aquino cast two women who are not Aboriginal to play two parts that are Aboriginal. She wanted the best actors for the part with out confining them to the ethnicity of the parts. Bravo. I just wish the play and production were better.

Factory Theatre and Native Earth present:

Opened: March 18, 2015
Closes: April 5, 2015
Cast: 1 man, 2 women
Running Time: 80 minutes.

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