by Lynn on March 28, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Theatre Passe Muraille, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Lisa Codrington
Directed by Philip Akin
Set and Costumes by Anna Treusch
Lighting by Steve Lucas
Sound by Verne Good
Projection Design by Cameron Davis
Cast: Raven Dauda
Arlene Duncan
Sochi Fried
Virgilia Griffith
Alex McCooeye
Ronnie Rowe Jr.
Marcel Stewart

This is a sprawling play about being and knowing yourself, that doesn’t know if it wants to be a farce or drama with at least five story lines going off in all directions.

The Story. Edmund lives in Jamaica with his mother. He’s going for a local interview for a job as a fruit picker in the Niagara region in Canada. The money he will earn is much needed by his family For the interview he wears a suit that belonged to his late father. It needs altering and Rosa, a local woman from Barbados, offers to fix it for him in exchange for a place to stay. It seems that Rosa’s mother was a seamstress who taught her everything she knows. It also seems that Rosa’s mother fitted Edmund’s father for the suit and gave him ‘extras’. Rosa’s mother gave all her male customers ‘extras’. So Rosa carries that stigma with her. Rosa just wants to go home.

Edmund gets the job but before he leaves for Canada he breaks his foot and has to stay. So Rosa dresses in the suit, pretends she is a man, and takes Edmund’s place. No one on the fruit farm seems to think there is anything odd there because they are all preoccupied with their own issues. Isaac owns the fruit farm and it’s a tough slog. In his off hours he works at Fort George as an ornamental soldier complete with uniform. But then he’s been chosen to conduct tours and give a history of the fort to tourists and Isaac is petrified. When he does get around to running his farm he realizes that he’s hired too many pickers so he asks Rosa (still in disguise) to be a scarecrow and scare away the flocks of starlings from the fruit. His sister Laura is busy memorizing speeches from St. Joan so she can audition for a local theatre company (one assumes it’s the Shaw Festival), for the role. Then there is Marcel who is another soldier in uniform, only he’s from the time when Fort George was an active fort that was central to the War of 1812. Marcel was wounded and never seemed to die. He needs to die. Only Rosa sees him. He has seen Rosa, ‘in the flesh’ as it were, and knows she’s a woman. He asks her for help to die.

The Production. Director Philip Akin has said that Up the Garden Path ‘is a true farce only without doors.” In a cheeky bit of set design Anna Treusch has created a set with all sorts of doors suspended above the stage when no one can get at them to open and close them at break-neck-farce speed. Matters are simpler with set pieces on the stage level. There is a bench and pathways off into a house that could be in Jamaica or on the farm in Canada.

There is a spirited conversation between Alma, who is Edmund’s mother, Amelia, Alma’s sister, Edmund and Rosa. It’s done in a patois so thick and so quickly delivered I’m sure I lost a lot of details. But the nuance and subtle sarcastic looks from Alma (Arlene Duncan) Amelia (Raven Dauda) Edmund (Ronnie Rowe Jr. ) and Rosa (Virgilia Griffith) are delicious in conveying the slang, poetry and musical patterns of the language of the island. It’s a challenge to keep up but it’s to the productions credit, especially of director Philip Akin, that he doesn’t tell his cast to slow down so the audience can catch up. We keep up or else get left behind. And when we do get the richness of playwright Lisa Codrington’s language and the sass with which it’s said, it’s a great present.

When Rosa dresses as a man in Edmund’s suit and arrives in Canada, Virgilia Griffith who plays her, slouches, perhaps trying to take on the physicality of a man, tries to speak in a deep voice and tries to think quickly on her feet. She sizes up Isaac the farm owner, and his sister Laura, pretty quickly.

She wants to keep the job, any job on that farm, to earn money to finally go home, so she does her best scaring off the starlings. The get-up that Isaac has her wear—clanging metal pieces– is odd and funny.

Laura commandeers her to help with lines from St. Joan. Marcel finds in Rosa a soul-mate of sorts. He is the only one so far who knows she’s a woman. She’s the only one who can see him. He helps her to scare away the starlings. She tries to help him to finally die and return home.

Director Philip Akin guides his cast through the great swaths of farce, drama, comedy and all the points in between. The timing of the sass of the first scene between Arlene Duncan, Raven Dauda, Ronnie Rowe Jr. and Virgilia Griffith is absolutely precise and hilarious. Scaring the birds dressed up as birds of prey is fantastical and a bit eye-brow knitting.

The scenes between Rosa and Marcel are quite touching. While Virgilia Griffith as Rosa is agile, desperate to go home and humbled in Alma’s presence, Griffith shines in her scenes with Marcel Stewart as Marcel. These are two lost, desperate souls wanting to get home; she actually, he figuratively. Griffith has a wide-eyed look of wonder and tenacity. Marcel Stewart as Marcel is intense and full of conviction. Only at the end does she fully reveal herself as a woman, cycling along a path in between the fruit trees. But I have to wonder where she is cycling too—or is that just symbolic? Akin uses projected videos to great effect.

Comment. Playwright Lisa Codrington has a wild imagination for storytelling and fine ear for dialogue. But the story is too convoluted and seems sprawling, if not laboured in making too many points in too many stories. While there might be ‘eight million stories in the naked city’ they don’t need to be in one play. It bogs things down instead of progressing smoothly. I wish I had a better handle on what Codrington what’s to say here? Is it about going home for Rosa and Marcel? What’s with the wild story of Isaac (an irritable Alex McCooey) and his inability to talk to tourists but has no problem talking to fruit pickers? What’s with his flighty sister Laura (played by a hyper Sochi Fried)? Lots of questions in a play overloaded with various styles of playwriting. A puzzlement.

Obsidian Theatre Presents:

Media Opening: March 25, 2016.
Closes: April 10, 2016.
Cast: 7; 3 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours.

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1 Rhoma Spencer March 31, 2016 at 2:40 pm

Totally agree with your comments. I left the theatre more confused than entertained. A quick note Though, the play is set in Barbados and Canada and Rosa is from Jamaica not the other way around as reflected in the review. However, as a Caribbean actor and director in this city, I found it difficult to follow the play’s Caribbean accent that jumped from Jamaica, to a bit of Barbados and God knows where elae cause i swear i did not understand the velocity of their narrative.