Body and Soul

Reviewed by Shelley Scott

The three plays under consideration deal with questions of spirituality and metaphysical inquiry. All three find ways to link visceral, physical qualities with ineffable experiences of transcendence and awakening. All three are also western Canadian plays: It is Solved by Walking premiered in April 2011 at the Pumphouse Theatre in Calgary in a production by Urban Curvz Theatre. Drama: Pilot Episode also premiered in Calgary, produced by Alberta Theatre Projects as part of the 2012 Enbridge playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays. And most recently, Leave of Absence was produced at Pacific Theatre in Vancouver in 2013.

In Catherine Banks’ two-character play, It is Solved by Walking, the character Margaret is prevented from achieving her dreams of finishing her PhD, writing poetry, and becoming a mother because of the sexual demands of her husband, John. Her first pregnancy ends in miscarriage, the second in abortion. Her most profound and repeated line is: “I am not writing.” John has long since left her at the beginning of the play, but Margaret’s creativity is still blocked by her erotic memories of him. Only when she receives news of his death is she able to re-engage with her identity as a writer, which is manifested through her conversations with Wallace Stevens. Banks’ writing is layered with metaphors, most notably with bird imagery. The play is structured around the stanzas of Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird;” Margaret is called Magpie and refers to her own first pregnancy as Ladybird. In addition to the recollections of her sexual past, Margaret’s other physical activity is walking. Sex becomes a metaphor for being distracted from writing, while walking is her way to prepare herself to begin. “The purest moment is just before it begins,” she explains of both a walk and a poem. Margaret traces a route around the stage, from her bed to the platform where writing can take place. In the end, she achieves a kind of integration: she takes a new lover, a tradesman who repairs her home, and she begins writing. In a final poetic metaphor, Margaret and her lover capture fireflies and then release them in their bedroom. The final stage direction tells us “the theatre is awash in fireflies.”

The connection between sexuality and spirituality is also at the heart of Lucia Frangione’s Leave of Absence, and it is manifested especially in the lesbian awakening of the fifteen-year-old central character, Blake. Sister Margaret teaches her students about the female Christian mystics and recites their “lusty” poems about longing for union with their saviour. Margaret’s appreciation for the feminine divine intermingles with Blake’s desire for her best friend. The result is tragic—perhaps unnecessarily so, as the play veers from a thoughtful and even comic consideration to a quite shocking conclusion—as Blake is bullied, assaulted, and then murdered by a group of high school boys. Only faithful Margaret is left to defend her religion, as the other characters leave. Leap journeys to Europe for a trip he should have taken with his late wife. The ex-priest, Ryan, and Blake’s mother, Greta, embark on the Camino de Santiago, a spiritual pilgrimage. As with It is Cured by Walking, Leave of Absence ends with a magical effect, as the air fills with singing that the playwright describes as “mystical” and “miraculous.”

In Karen Hines’s ambitious neo-noir Drama: Pilot Episode, what might be a comic parody of Calgary’s slick western boomtown lifestyle and the soulless machinations of television production is given a larger dimension through the introduction of ghosts, spirits, and a character called The Sage, who shepherds the other six characters through shifting layers of dream and reality. Animal imagery again plays a large part in creating the supernatural atmosphere, including a cow skeleton and bison skulls as prominent stage elements, and the repeated motif of a bird falling from the sky. At one point, the stage is flooded with white ants. The most obvious connection with the physical is the repetition of references to pregnancy, birth, and babies: one character is pregnant throughout the play, another carries her baby and breastfeeds, and the main character, an ex-forensic psychologist, is asked constantly if she has children. While the audience might be challenged to follow the logic through the dense discussions of god, environmental degradation, and psychiatry, the key seems—as with the other two plays—to find the connection between the physical and the metaphysical, to embody a spiritual experience.

This review “Body and Soul” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 120-21.

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