by Lynn on September 29, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

Faucet Clipart

At the Tarragon Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Annabel Soutar
Directed by Chris Abraham
Set and costumes by Julie Fox
Projection design by Denyse Karn
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Cast: Laura Condlln
Bruce Dinsmore
Alex Ivanovici
Tanja Jacobs
Ngozi Paul
Eric Peterson
Amelia Sargisson
Kristen Thomson

A docu-drama dealing with the intricate, complex world of Canada’s water that makes many good points but over-writing among other concerns weakens it.

The Story. In her program note, playwright Annabel Soutar says that her intension with The Watershed is to examine the polarizing conversation between environmentalists and the industrialists with regard to the environment and more specifically, Canada’s water.

This is a family affair. Annabel Soutar’s husband Alex and their two children Beatrice, aged eight and Ella aged 10 are also involved. They interviewed ordinary people such as a plumber regarding water and how water gets into a house; a driller in the oil sands of Alberta explaining how he drills through various layers of earth/oil/rock to water; professors and scientists working study water supplies; activists working to save our clean water supply; politicians about their various portfolios and even quotes then Prime Minister Stephen Harper regarding his policies.

One particular focus of The Watershed is the Experimental Lake Area (ELA) in northern Ontario. It’s an area of many lakes that has been used for invaluable experimentation and study. It had been funded by the Federal Government (it cost $2 million per year) and was then cancelled to save money, in spite of strong protests. The Ontario Government picked up the project.

Soutar and her husband Alex also take their two daughters and a young friend of their daughters’ on a cross country discovery trip where Soutar is determined to show the country to her children to further enlighten them about the environment’s importance; where the girls are expected to interview ordinary people about their thoughts on their jobs and the environment; Soutar continues to push for interviews with politicians.

The Production. Director Chris Abraham has directed the production with a breathless sense of movement, pace and urgency. To that end all of Julie Fox’s set pieces are on wheels in her efficient, spare set design: first of the Soutar residence and later offices, other homes etc. A white sofa is quickly moved into place for one scene and then dispensed with for the next. A white toilet is used as a toilet (don’t worry it’s done tastefully and with humour) and as something on which to sit for a conversation.

We hear a dripping sound (bravo Thomas Ryder Payne for the sound design) as we file into the theatre and see a projection (huge kudos to projection designer Denyse Karn) of a drip of light dropping into the white bathtub below. Lovely, effective image. Act I ends with the image of a miniature Winnebago travelling from stage right to stage left, as Alex operates the remote control device to get the motor-home model moving, indicating the beginning of their cross-country adventure.

For Act II the set is reconfigured to suggest the compact interior of the Winnebago (with two wheels strategically placed suggesting the outside). When the group is on the road Kimberly Purtell’s effective lighting streaks across the edge of the stage suggesting the rapid movement of the vehicle. And again Karn’s projections create place, space, location and views. Projections are also helpful in indicating the name of the notable person speaking and their position in government, politics, industry, science, or other.

Soutar, Abraham and the cast create the sense of chaos, urgency and outrage for the people involved in these investigations. We also understand two harried parents trying to reign in their two rambunctious, young daughters. Sometimes these scenes degenerate into shouting contests. That’s not a good thing. As Annabel Soutar, Kristen Thomson is polite, initially calm and accommodating when dealing with her children and then slowly gives in to frustration. When dealing with bureaucrats she is patient, inquisitive and smart to smell a rat.

Alex Ivanovici plays himself, and is an understanding, supportive husband in his wife’s endeavours as well as a loving father. As Beatrice, Ngozi Paul plays the typical bored, impatient eight-year-old, and as 10-year-old Ella, Amelia Sargisson is her bossy, but a bit more mature sister. Both Paul and Sargisson play many other characters besides the children. Eric Peterson plays several characters from Soutar’s loving Conservative father, an irritated Joe Oliver, and an alarmist announcer on Fox News. Tanja Jacobs instils authority in her performance as Maud Barlow; a matter-of-fact professor at the University of Toronto who coined the phrase “acid rain’ and another alarmist reporter on Fox News, and Hazel Abraham, Chris Abraham’s forthright young daughter, among others.

The last image is of the family swimming in a pristine lake in Quebec, leaving the audience to note the irony that such a pleasure might soon be a thing of the past.

Comment. Docu-drama is Annabel’s Soutar’s theatrical genre of choice. She used the same technique of transcripts, verbatim speeches and documented situations in her powerful previous play Seeds, about the efforts of the Monsanto behemoth to control seeds for farming.

One can’t overestimate the timeliness or importance of The Watershed in documenting the dire situation of our water, and that’s even without considering the Nestlé Company’s buying of our water to sell back to us in bottles.

Soutar illuminates the secrecy of the Harper government in its dealings with environmental issues. She tries to present a fair-mined look at all the sides of this situation, from the committed advocate for clean water protesting against bad environmental choices; to the bureaucrat with larger concerns such as business and making money; to the scientists who know something is wrong and are thwarted when they try to do anything about it. And there certainly is a sense of urgency and speed in which the details, meetings, phone calls, and events tumble out at a gushing pace.

I appreciated the inclusion of showing the naivety of some characters in expecting fair treatment from big business and government. Soutar worked hard to have an interview with a politician and is gleeful when she gets the interview but is desolate and angry when that politician cancels because he is elevated to cabinet and is busy. She’s angry because she’s driven a 1,000 miles to be at the appointment, as if the politician would care.

But I have concerns. As with anyone committed to a cause and a play about that cause, Soutar needs to be more ruthless with cutting her play of the scenes that don’t need to be there. I saw the workshop of the first act—which was way too long—and then the production of The Watershed as part of Panamania last summer, and there had been much editing, and now this version at the Tarragon, which has been edited a bit. The play needs to be edited further. The main stumbling block is the inclusion of the children.

I realize that Soutar was determined to include her children in this project and have them informed of the importance of this subject, but at eight and ten years old, the children are too young to grasp the importance. Every time they are in a scene in which they are expected to participate they show they don’t understand and that’s damaging to the point of the play.

In the scene with a plumber, Beatrice is more interested in eating and playing with her fruit roll-up than in answering the plumber’s questions. Ella is a bit more mature and answers some questions, but is more interested in fighting with Beatrice. This isn’t cute. This is damaging to the play. While Soutar lovingly tells her children they can ask her anything about what’s going on and she will answer, that isn’t the case. Beatrice asked about something and was shut down.

The scene in Act II when the family and Hazel are in a plane flying over the oil sands, the projection of the damage is projected but we become distracted when Hazel gets airsick and everyone but the pilot becomes hysterical. Another scene diminished by the kids. Scene after scene have the parents wondering where one of their children is so they can set off on a trip etc. This might be real life but it’s deadly in a play about a serious subject, that is already overlong.

Annabel Soutar’s commitment to creating theatre about serious subjects is admirable. I hope her next effort involves ruthless editing and ideally participants who are old enough to know what is going on.

Produced by Porte Parole in co-production with Crow’s Theatre

Opened: Sept. 28, 2016.
Closes: Oct. 30, 2016.
Cast: 8; 3 men, 5 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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