Review: OIL

by Lynn on March 6, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

Geary Lane, 360 Geary Ave. Toronto, Ont.,

Written by Ella Hickson

Directed by Aviva Armour-Ostroff and Christopher Stanton

Set and costumes designed by Jackie Chau

Lighting designed by Nick Blais

Music and sound design by Maddie Bautista

Video design by Melissa Joakim

Cast: Samantha Brown

Deborah Drakeford

Lily Gao

Ryan Hollyman

Cyrus Lane

Shadi Shahkhalili

Courtenay Stevens

Nabil Traboulsi

Bahareh Yaraghi

Oil is Ella Hickson’s bracing, gritty play about our dependence on oil and what we will do to have it. The production is gripping right up to and including its shattering land acknowledgement.

The Story. Oil follows our dependence on oil over a 200 year period, starting in Cornwall, England in 1889, to Tehran, Iran in 1908, to Hampstead, London, England in 1970, to Kurdistan in 2025 finishing in Cornwall, England in 2051. We see the first tentative steps to grasping oil’s power to heat and light in 1889.

As the play moves on to different time periods and locations we see how pervasive oil’s hold has on our lives. Oil is in everything from condoms to ice cream. Countries fight to have it in order to control others who don’t have it but want and need it.

It’s also the story of a mother and daughter’s journey to love and understanding.

The Production. Jackie Chau’s set is brilliant. Whether intentional or by design, there is a rusty, black ‘oil’ drum in a corner of the tight entrance of the Geary Lane space, to get us in the world of oil. Inside the ‘theatre’ black ‘drips’ of oil are suspended above the simple stage. The sink with taps, the freezer and the fridge in one scene are all fashioned out of barrels that could be mini oil barrels.

The production starts in 1889 in Cornwall, England on the Singer family farm. They work hard. It’s winter and they are always cold because the wood burning stove does not have the capacity to heat the place. Joss Singer (Cyrus Lane) is the oldest of three brothers. He is loving to his pregnant wife May (Bahareh Yaraghi). No one else knows yet that she’s pregnant. She is bedevilled by Sam Singer (Courtenay Stevens) whose own wife miscarried. Running the family with a clenched fist and an almost unforgiving manner is Ma Singer, played with a relentless toughness by Deborah Drakeford. Ma obviously resents May, and it’s beautifully established by Drakeford’s compelling performance. That is until she learns that May is pregnant and then she softens and becomes protective.  

They are visited by a stranger, William Whitcomb. He has a small bottle of a magical fluid. It’s called oil and it can light a lamp and the resultant flame can spread heat like this family has not seen. He wants to buy the farm to store the barrels of oil he will sell. As with anything new the family is wary. May is curious and interested. We get a sense of May’s longing to leave that farm and that claustrophobic life.

Over the other scenes of Act I: Tehran in 1908, Hampstead, London, England in 1970 and the two scenes in the future in Act II: Near Kirkuk, Kurdistan in 2025 and Cornwall, England in 2051 we get a sense of the mother/daughter relationship of May (all played by the excellent Bahareh Yaraghi) as the mother over the years and her daughter Amy (a wonderful Samantha Brown).

May is a humble but watchful servant in 1908 who is also concerned for the safety of her young daughter; a confident, focused executive dealing with her rebellious teenaged daughter in 1970; a single-minded politician in 2025 who has come to bring her grown daughter home to safety from Kurdistan; and an old woman existing with her equally dependent daughter in 2051, again in Cornwall, which is now unrecognizable from that lush farm land in the first scene. As May, Bahareh Yaraghi segues with grace and detailed clarity through each iteration of the character. 

The cast is stellar with Bahareh Yaraghi as May and Samantha Brown as Amy being the two actors who play their parts consistently through the ages. Samantha Brown also illuminates every age of Amy from a young innocent little girl (1908 Tehran), to a smarmy, independent teen (1970, Hampstead), to a young woman committed to social justice (2025 Kurdistant), to an old, irritable woman, hovering with her mother in the cold of Cornwall in 2051.  

Co-directors Aviva Armour-Ostroff and Christopher Stanton have directed this with finesse, style and smooth efficiency. The scene changes are done with flare as tables and chairs from one time period are removed with a flourish and replaced with furnishings from another time period. Clothes are often changed on stage in silhouette with a jacket being removed and handed off and another garment put on smoothly, ready for the next scene.

Melissa Joakim’s unobtrusive but effective video designs add to the feel of each new time period. For example Joakim’s bleak background video creation of Cornwall in 2051 and Maddie Bautista’s sound effects of an ever present cold wind, gives us another vision but one that echoes the cold harshness of the first scene. The history of the world repeating itself.  

Cornwall, if not the earth, is a wasteland that has depleted its oil by the end of the play, ready for a new player with a new scheme for a cheap, efficient ‘fuel’. Where it comes from and who is bringing it is frightening and not farfetched.  

But co-directors Aviva Armour-Ostroff and Christopher Stanton are not finished with focusing on the power and greed of oil and getting it out of the ground and on to markets. The land acknowledgement that usually begins a production ends this one, with a connection to the protests of the building of the oil pipeline in British Columbia and the protests of the Wet’suwet’en Territory. Chilling. 

Comment. Ella Hickson’s 2016 play is bold, challenging and huge in scope in exploring the all consuming need and greed we have for oil; how the British went into Iran for its oil in 1908 and proceeded to take what it wanted including being overbearing to the people. She also explores gender politics with the treatment of women over the ages. In the scene in Kurdistan in 2025 Amy does not want to leave there. She wants to help the people and learned the language. She doesn’t want to leave her friend Ana. But Ana wants Amy to go with her mother. She doesn’t want Amy’s do-good attitude. She points out Amy’s hypocrisy—Amy assumes Ana can’t speak English because she never asked her. It’s a rather stunning moment in a play full of them. Oil is a terrific, timely play produced by ARC one of our best indie theatre companies. See it.    

ARC presents:

From: March 3, 2020.

Closes: March 21, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx. 1 intermission.

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