by Lynn on May 8, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following shows were broadcast Friday, May 8, 2015. CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm Brimstone and Treacle at the Sidemart Theatrical Grocery, 1362 Queen St. E. until May 17, 2015, and God and the Indian at the Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas St. E. Until May 17.

The host was Phil Taylor.

Good Friday morning. It’s theatre fix time with Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. What’s new this week?

I have two plays.The first is Brimstone and Treacle by Dennis Potter that is macabre, melodramatic and gripping. Then God and the Indian by Drew Hayden Taylor about the aftermath of residential schools and what happens when the abused meets her abuser.

Sounds like two substantial plays. Let’s start with Brimstone and Treacle.

It kind of sounds like a Disney title doesn’t it? It’s anything but.

The late British writer Dennis Potter, is a master of the macabre, the unsettling story, and that was never truer than in his 1976 play Brimstone and Treacle.

Patti Bates has been in a quadriplegic, almost uncommunicative state since she was the victim of a hit and run accident two years ago. It’s left her totally helpless. She can’t speak. She grunts and makes sounds. She flails around uncontrollably and has to be strapped into bed. She has to be fed, washed, dressed and given constant care. Her devoted mother Amy has taken on that task without complaint. She feels Patti will one day recover and that even now Amy sees signs of improvement.

Amy’s husband Tom totally disagrees. He is ill-tempered, frustrated by his wife’s devotion to their daughter and impatient with the attention to her and the inattention to him. One day in the street Tom literally bumps into a young man named Martin, who convinces him they know each other. The next thing Tom knows is that Martin comes to the house, with his wallet. Martin says that Tom must have dropped it. Martin enters their lives and even says that he and Patti were good friends when they were younger.

Amy is delighted because Martin notices her and compliments her where Tom just ignores her. Martin is helpful, kind-hearted, he suggests to Amy that she can go out for a change and he will take care of Patti. Amy thinks Martin is a great guy. Or is he? There is a whiff of sulphur about him. There is something sinister about him at least to the audience. Brimstone suggests a certain person and as the play continues we believe Martin could be the devil.

But the play suggests it’s a balance of the sweet and the sinister.

The play is tricky. How do you balance the sickeningly sweet demeanor of Amy, her cheerfulness and her eagerness to believe Martin, and Martin’s emotional distance, his cloying and for us, his alarming sense of danger?

I think playwright Dennis Potter handles this really well—he wrote Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective for television so he knows how to balance the humour and evil.

Martin plays off vulnerable people. Tom is sort of convinced that they did know each other before. Amy of course is so hopeful that Patti will recover that she also wants to believe that Martin is a good man and a God send to give her some relief. And even a husband to Patti once she recovers.

And through the writing and the production we see the depths of the evil of which Martin is capable. Also troubling is Tom and his racist, class consciousness. He’s an Englishman who wants England for Englishman and everybody else can go back to where they came from. It’s as if Potter is asking, ‘Who’s the devil here?’

How is the production?

Director John Shooter always has us guessing, unsettled and at the last moment, sucking air at a stunning revelation.

As Amy, Brigitte Robinson plays the too trusting woman, who is a bit silly and naïve and she does it with absolute truth and conviction. The part is very difficult if not impossible—Amy puts up with Tom’s coldness without complaint. She deals with Patti’s constant needs and Robinson just nails the part.

As Patti, Nicole Wilson is convincing as the severely physically and mentally damaged daughter. As Tom, Rod Ceballos is that stodgy, arrogant Englishman who wants everything as it was.

I do have a problem with Scott Garland as Martin. He plays it too broad with lots of theatrics that are unnecessary. Rather than send up the evil of the man, it should be downplayed so that the audience comes to realize his evilness on its own. I though Garland plays him too effete.Too much effort. Less is best.

This is the third production of John Shooter’s I’ve seen and I’m mighty impressed.

And now God and the Indian. You’re not going to mistake that title for Disney.

Indeed not. It’s written by Drew Hayden Taylor, a celebrated writer of the Curve Lake First Nation.
It’s about the lasting damage of residential schools on the children who were forced to attend them.

It’s set in the year 2000. A native woman, who calls herself Johnny Indian, is panhandling in front of a Tim Horton’s when she sees the man who abused her in one such residential school.

She follows him to his office and in a way holds him captive. She believes he is the former teacher who sexually abused her in the residential school she was forced to attend when she was 12. She had a younger brother who died and she wasn’t able to see him or say good bye when he died. She’s had a terrible life. She had no chance to better herself.

The man is George King now an Anglican assistant Bishop. And Johnny wants him to confess to sexually abusing her. George King totally denies doing it. He can’t remember her. He acknowledges that it was a terrible thing, and he knew what was going on then, but he couldn’t stop it so he left the school.

The details of the horrors of residential schools are dealt with to some extent. The questions of did he do it/did he not do it are examined and King denies them. Who is telling the truth? Has Johnny confused the memory? She had been an alcoholic, perhaps it’s muddled her brain?

The whole subject of residential schools and the terrible emotional, psychological and physical damage done to children is chilling. Does the play do justice to the subject matter?

Not even close. This is a dreadful play. Drew Hayden Taylor is generally a comic writer and even with God and the Indian he can’t resist the glib joke. King enters his office, Tim Horton’s coffee in hand, sees the painting of Christ on the wall and thanks him for another beautiful day. He had to wait to get to the office and see the painting? He wouldn’t have noticed when he got up first thing in the morning?

He sees his own coffee maker in his office and is gleeful because now he can make a good cup of coffee and get rid of his Tim Horton’s coffee which he says is as bland as a church sermon—or words to the effect. Now this is said to nobody. And for the rest of the play there is nary a joke. This is drivel filler. It’s a writer who doesn’t know how to start his play. And what follows is not much better.

There is the suggestion that King did abuse Johnny when she was a girl, but the arguments are so weak on his part that there is no tug of war here.

And the play reminds me of Doubt, a much better play by John Patrick Shanley, about a priest who is accused of sexually abusing a young boy. In that instance you are always in doubt about whether or not the priest did it.

With God and the Indian the whole question is so badly handled, the dialogue so clichéd, I didn’t care. We are to believe that King would be in a room with this woman and not immediately call for help? He did try later but she pulled the wires out of the wall. How about just leaving! But no, he stays. Credibility goes out the window. And the supposed surprise ending had me rolling my eyes.

How is the production?

Just as bad. It’s clumsily directed by Renae Morriseau. Very often she places Thomas Hauff, who plays George King, in a chair downstage and Lisa C. Ravensbergen, who plays Johnny, behind him. This means that he has to turn and talk to her over his shoulder. Ridiculous. I got a cramp in my neck watching it. The blocking is clumsy and there is little sense of real urgency.

There are scenes when items important to the story—a crate of oranges, a hospital bed—appear illuminated behind the back wall. Symbolism in neon. Groan. The acting is laboured. The horrors of the residential schools deserve a better play than this.

Would you recommend it to anyone?

Yes. The shredder.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at twitter @slotkinletter

Brimstone and Treacle plays at the Sidemart Theatrcial Grocery at 1362 Queen St. E. until May 17

God and the Indian plays at the Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas St. E until May 17.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.