by Lynn on January 12, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Matthew MacKenzie

Directed by Brendan McMurtry-Howlett

Sound by Dean Musani

Set and costumes by Alison Yanota

Lighting by Kaileigh Krysztofiak

Cast: Sheldon Elter

Jesse Gervais

Louise Lambert

Kaitlyn Riordan

The Fort McMurray fire destroyed more than homes and land. It pitted loving friends and relations against each other. After the Fire is full of myths, traditions, human frailty and loving loyalty. Matthew MacKenzie’s play is small in execution but huge in implication. And it’s darkly funny.

 The Story. After the Fire is a play about misplaced anger. The ‘fire’ in question was the devastating fire in Fort McMurray, Alberta that started in May 2016 and raged until the fire covered 85,000 hectares of land, displaced the entire city and destroyed 2,579 homes. And for our purposes the fire and its aftermath have brought Barry, his wife Laura, her sister Carmell and Carmell’s estranged husband Ty, almost to the brink of madness.

Barry and Laura lost their home in the fire and were taken in by Carmell. It’s close quarters. The sisters don’t get along perhaps because of close quarters or lingering hurts. Carmell and Ty are on their way to divorce. He’s unemployed, a cocaine addict, a hot-head and seems to live in his truck since Carmell threw him out. She is keeping company with a man who is nicknamed “Green Peace.”  This further enrages Ty. Added to that, there was a recent hockey game in which Carmell’s teenaged daughter played and they lost on a technicality and while Carmell is upset at the outcome, Laura is furious. Everybody is raging at each other, hurts and accusations come out but it’s really the fire’s fault that is the cause and ignites this simmering animosity.

 The Production. The audience sits on four sides of the playing space. There is a large mound of black dirt in the middle of the space, thanks to designer Alison Yanota.  Barry (Sheldon Elter) and Ty (Jesse Gervais) arrive with a shovel. We are lead to believe that they are in the middle of some forest or deserted place outside of town.  Barry begins shoveling from the top of the mound down. Ty says to dig about six of seven feet. Why is the mystery.  In the meantime Laura (Kaitlyn Riordan) and Carmell (Louise Lambert) make their way in the dark through this forest or desolate place for some reason. In each case those simmering hurts and slights bubble to the surface and the sisters go at each other for perceived inadequacies and the two men do the same.

Ty loves his children.  Barry muses on his Cree heritage and hopes that the fire wasn’t his fault because he has not been faithful to his Cree traditions. He respects and reveres the land. He does most of the digging. Laura is judgmental towards her sister and angry at the loss of the hockey game. Carmell is just angry at her failed marriage, disappointed in her husband and perhaps embarrassed at people’s perceptions of her boyfriend.

Director Brendan McMurtry-Howlett has some nice touches to this atmospheric piece. Dean Musani’s sound creates a sense of foreboding; Kaileigth Krysztofiak’s lighting is properly moody and eerie. While the cast is strong and knows how to realize the dark humour of the play, I thought McMurtry-Howlett directed them to shout relentlessly. Tiresome. Sheldon Elter as Barry is notable for his nuance, subtlety and variation. (If you haven’t seen him in Bears, also by Matthew MacKenzie, get your tickets now! It’s coming to Factory).

 Comment. Matthew MacKenzie is a whimsical, thoughtful writer, with a depth of feeling that bubbles up from his plays. This was clearly seen in his wonderful play Bears and again here in After the Fire. His sense of humour is subtle and doesn’t hit you over the head. It arises naturally from character and certainly situation. MacKenzie has a twist in his story that will pop your eyes. And it’s the thing that brings out the humanity in his four characters, no matter how irritated they feel towards each other. MacKenzie makes you hold on while you wonder where those women are going and why those men are digging.  The fire might have changed their lives forever, but Matthew MacKenzie illuminates the strength of the ties that bind them no matter what.  

 Presented by Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts in association with Native Earth Performing Arts and The Theatre Centre.

 Opened: Jan. 10, 2019.

Closes: Jan. 19, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes.


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