- Scott Burke (Editor)
Maiden Voyages: Ship's Company Theatre Premieres 2000 - 2002. Broken Jaw Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Virginia Cooke
Launched in 1984 in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia on the Bay of Fundy, Ship’s Company Theatre claims as its mission the production and development of Canadian and Atlantic theatre. Plays are produced aboard a de-commissioned ferry vessel, the MV Kipawa, the last of the Minas Bay ferries. Since 1984, Ship’s Company has mounted over 30 plays, 18 of them original productions, most notably Wendy Lill’s Sisters and The Glace Bay Miners Museum.
Maiden Voyages includes three works created for the Ship’s Company between 2000 and 2002: Chairmaker the Musical (2003) by Scott Burke, Miles from Home (2001) by Michael Melski, and Sole Survivors (2000) by Donna E. Smyth. The collection functions as a “ship’s log” of recent productions, and has intrinsic archival value. Each play features a Nova Scotian hero, and resonates locally, but two of these works may fail to make dramatic waves beyond the Bay of Fundy’s shores.
Scott Burke, who directed all three dramas, found inspiration for Chairmaker in a volume of rhymes and songs of Edgar Fisher, employed for 60 years in a chair factory in Bass River, Nova Scotia. Around these ditties, Burke wraps a thin 1940s tale of the factory owner’s son, Jimmy, ordered to work in the chair factory as penance after he has failed math and wrecked his father’s car. The factory (and the play) are presided over by an avuncular manager, Edward, who serves as, both mentor and matchmaker for Jimmy--and serendipitously, as resident rustic philosopher and leader of the town’s barbershop quartet.
Local reviews attest to the audience’s enthusiastic embrace of Chairmaker the Musical, in part because it honours the history of the place (the actual Bass River chair factory burned down in 1948). However, lacking the music, the script fails to capture this appeal. Rather than homespun and charming, it seems predictable, with humour as adolescent as the characters. It does raise the issue of whether young people from Nova Scotia must pursue their dreams in Ontario.
In Miles from Home, Michael Melski offers the most overtly biographical of the plays, which he terms “a necessary synthesis of history and myth.” He adheres closely to Marathon King, Williston’s biography of Johnny Miles, the miner’s son from Cape Breton, “a twenty-one year old delivery boy in ninety-eight cent sneakers,” who twice won the Boston Marathon. Against the backdrop of strikes, disasters, and the drudgery of mining in Cape Breton, Melski explores Johnny’s obsession with running. The story itself is simple enough--boy wins race, boy loses race, boy wins race again, fulfilling his dream, and lifting the spirits of the folks back home. Yet the play offers several points of interest.
One is the soundscape. Starting guns, mine explosions, ships’ whistles, roars of crowds: such sounds often conclude one scene and transform into another sound that opens the subsequent scene. Further, sound sometimes offers ironic counterpoint to action or dialogue. Johnny’s non-sequitur monologues during races present the inner sound of running, which contrasts with the sportscaster’s booming external accounts of the race, as well as with the physical action. The set requires a track--astonishing, considering its production aboard a ship.
Melski’s ambitious attempt to correlate Johnny’s story with the social struggles of the miners works unevenly, but succeeds through the voices of the miners during the scenes of running. The play undoubtedly has local relevance, as Johnny Miles became a symbol of hope to Cape Breton miners.
Sole Survivors, based on the life of poet Elizabeth Bishop, originated as a one-woman show, Running to Paradise, and was re-fashioned for the Ship’s Company. In brief vignettes, Smyth touches on events from Bishop’s life, from her 1934 meeting with Marianne Moore, to her 1979 receipt of an honorary degree from Dalhousie University. During those scenes, we meet Robert Lowell, Lotta Soares (Bishop’s Brazilian lover), and more briefly, Ezra Pound. One by one, the characters suffer immense loss. Smyth has mined the lively correspondence between these poets for glimpses of their complex relationships, and to track an introverted Bishop through loneliness and alcoholism, offset by her satisfaction in poetry and painting. The figure of Charles Darwin, whose writing Bishop admired, serves as a framing presence, guiding Bishop on her journey, and prompting her convocation address.
For Ship’s Company, the local connection lies in Bishop’s childhood roots in Great Village, Nova Scotia, where her mother suffered a breakdown. Bishop is haunted by guilt for her neglect of her mother. Of the three plays, Sole Survivors seems most likely to weather waters outside Nova Scotia. It deserves attention both from readers and potential producers.
- Charting Asian America by Lily Cho
Books reviewed: Asian American Playwrights: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook by Miles Xian Liu and Negotiating Identities: An Introduction to Asian American Women's Writing by Helena Grice
- Touring Anglophone Drama by Albert-Reiner Glaap
Books reviewed: Crucible of Cultures: Anglophone Drama at the Dawn of a New Millennium by Franca Bellarsi and Marc Maufort
- Beyond the Burning Rock by Sean Conway
Books reviewed: So Beautiful by Ramona Dearing and The Sandblasting Hall of Fame by Lawrence Mathews
- Living In Hopes—Atlantic Realities and Realisms by Danielle Fuller
Books reviewed: Strange Heaven by Yves Beauchemin, Flesh and Blood by Michael Crummey, and World Enough by Lesley Choyce
- Searching for Truth by Judith Thompson
Books reviewed: Palace of the End by Judith Thompson, Silverwing: The Play by Kim Selody, and Dreams by Linda Gaboriau and Wajdi Mouawad
MLA: Cooke, Virginia. Making Waves. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #185 (Summer 2005), (Stratton, Compton, Morra, Wylie, Gordon). (pg. 138 - 139)
***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.