- Catherine Banks (Author)
Bone Cage. Playwrights Canada Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Uma Parameswaran (Author)
Rootless but Green Are the Boulevard Trees. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Leanna Brodie (Author)
Schoolhouse. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Drew Hayden Taylor (Author)
The Berlin Blues. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Alan Filewood
Of the four playtexts under review, three arrived in book publication via play development workshops, readings, and productions. The fourth is a reprint of a play originally published twenty years ago, which has had a significant history as a pioneering dramatic testament of the Southeast Asian diaspora, but has had little theatrical life. The differences between it and the other three, all theatrically polished in the dramaturgical factories of play development that have come to be an integral element of Canadian theatre production, highlight the relation of canonicity and theatre economy that determines which plays get published.
Why play development workshops have become so necessary in the production of new playscripts can be seen in the theatrical obstacles to production in Uma Parameswaran’s Rootless but Green Are the Boulevard Trees. When first published in 1987 (some years in fact after it was written), Parameswaran’s play was a groundbreaking and effective dramatic slice of life about an immigrant family in Winnipeg struggling with the pressures of family, tradition, nostalgia, and assimilation. It was groundbreaking not because of its story or plot mechanics, which echo similar plays from other cultural experiences (fifty years earlier the family might have been Italian or Greek, and the play would be much the same). Rather it was the emergence of South Asian voices in Canadian drama that was significant. The canon shifted.
But the canon of Canadian drama is not the repertoire of Canadian theatre. Rootless but Green Are the Boulevard Trees has not had a significant theatrical history, primarily, I suspect, because it is theatrically unwieldy. With a cast of fourteen characters, some of whom appear only briefly, a succession of carefully described scenes that would require major set changes, and a three-act structure, the play gestures to a theatrical practice that today can only be found in large metropolitan showcase theatres or community amateur playhouses. In short, Rootless but Green Are the Boulevard Trees is much like the early efforts of many playwrights. It adheres to a notion of dramatic form that derives from early twentieth-century theatrical realism, with leisurely dramatic arcs, unnaturally articulate characters, and surging dramatic crises. Put into the hands of a dramaturge and a director at a play development workshop, a script of this sort would be dismantled and rebuilt to suit the needs of the theatres that actually do produce new plays.
Those needs can be discerned in the other three plays under review. All are in two acts, the industry standard today because restive audiences want movie-length plays with one interval at most (unless they have paid premium prices for a megamusical outing or a day trip to Stratford). They are written for small casts (Leanna Brodie’s Schoolhouse is the exception here) and can be rehearsed quickly. Of equal importance for a small theatre, they call for innovative but inexpensive design solutions in sets, lights, and props.
Bone Cage and The Berlin Blues, although markedly different in voice, theme, and tone, share the streamlined efficiency of the play development process, and both read as if they have been road-tested by actors and designers. Catherine Banks’ Bone Cage is a compelling and engagingly eccentric study of rural dead-end lives in Nova Scotia that well deserved its 2008 Governor General’s Literary Award. Banks stands at a remove from her characters and their somewhat grotesque aspirations (a teenager wants to get married to have a perfect wedding and impress her teachers at school; an end-of-the-road father seeks DNA to send in the mail to have his dead son cloned) but her ironic touch is balanced by respect and fondness for her characters. To say Bone Cage reminds me of Judith Thompson meeting The Trailer Park Boys may be an injustice to the play, but that comparison does convey something of Banks’ unique voice. Of the plays reviewed here, this is the one that we might expect to see in theatre seasons.
The Berlin Blues is a less serious work, but perhaps even more polished. Drew Hayden Taylor has produced an accomplished series of comedies about reserve life that are consummate in their dramatic mechanics. In this latest play, two German entrepreneurs sell the idea of a First Nations theme park to an Ojibway community. Taylor has a great deal of fun with OjibwayWorld and the German fetishization of North American First Peoples, but at the same time seems to respect the sincere and respectful appreciation of traditional culture that (some) German hobbyists evince. The Berlin Blues may be breezy sitcom, but it has a point to make and is masterfully done.
The final play here, Leanna Brodie’s Schoolhouse, is the most ambitious and complex. It is the product of two of the most unique rural theatres in Canada, the Blythe Festival and 4th Line Theatre (which is located on a farm near Peterborough and offers both indoor and outdoor performance possibilities). On the surface, Brodie gives us a story of a young woman’s first year of teaching in a rural one-room school in 1938, taking us through the trepidations and antics of the situation, throwing in a flinty romance, and moving forward via a plot involving a hard-to-reach student outsider. Under the (quite skilled) storytelling, the play is an exuberantly theatrical and moving tribute to the schoolhouse itself, filled with memories and local details distilled from Brodie’s extensive interviews with former teachers and students who shared the experience of the one-room school.
The Berlin Blues and Schoolhouse both target specific theatrical niches. The Berlin Blues is ideal for cottage-country summer theatres. It’s fast, funny, and cheap to produce, but smart enough to rise above the usual fare of romantic comedies, thrillers, and farces. Schoolhouse may have a theatrical life in summer theatres, but might deter producers because it would be expensive to produce, unless directors choose to cast the students with youth actors in a community production (not unlike 4th Line’s hybrid professional / community projects). But it is also very well-suited to student production, and may have a good life in high school and university theatres.
Unlike Rootless but Green Are the Boulevard Trees, these three plays all carry the imprint of particular theatrical spaces, and carry those spaces into the published text. Their theatrical provenance becomes part of their textuality, reminding us that the plays that live in the theatre come from the theatre.
- Subversion by Sound by Chris Jennings
Books reviewed: Electra by Anne Carson and Sophocles
- Writing In The Dark by Leslie Stark
Books reviewed: The Monster Trilogy by RM Vaughan, Seeing Red by Dennis Cooley, and Now You Care by Di Brandt
- Playing With the Margins by Terry Goldie
Books reviewed: Poor Superman by Brad Fraser, Sled by Judith Thompson, and Fair Liberty's Call by Sharon Pollock
- Trait d'union by Eric Paul Parent
Books reviewed: Le chant du Dire-Dire by Daniel Danis, Assoiffés by Wajdi Mouawad, Floes et D'Alaska (suite Nordique) by Sébastien Harrisson, Le Long de la Principale by Steve Leplante, and Souliers de Sable by Suzanne Lebeau
- Modern Canadian Plays by Ric Knowles
Books reviewed: Modern Canadian Drama by Jerry Wasserman
MLA: Filewood, Alan. Factored Dramaturgies. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #205 (Summer 2010), Queerly Canadian. (pg. 127 - 129)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.