“What would life be without art?”

  • Beth Graham (Author)
    The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble. Playwrights Canada Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Michel Marc Bouchard (Author)
    The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • David Yee (Author)
    carried away on the crest of a wave. Playwrights Canada Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Shelley Scott

The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble is written as a continuous, unfolding story told by Iris Trimble, unattached office temp and middle child. Iris speaks directly to the audience as she sets a timer, prepares a casserole, and explains the theatrical “rules”—that, for example, when salt and pepper shakers appear we are in her mother’s kitchen, and when they are put away we are back at Iris’. The play slides charmingly in and out of time periods and theatrical realism, beginning with a sequence in which both Iris and her mother Bernice appear to share the same kitchen but are actually in two different time periods or, in a later example, when Iris and her older sister Sarah give voice to what they are actually thinking about each other. The three female characters are joined by Iris’ younger brother, Peter, and the “gravitational pull” of the title comes from Bernice’s announcement that she is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The family is called together, a year after Bernice’s husband’s death, so that Bernice can share her bad news with her three adult children. First produced by Obsidian and Factory at the Factory Theatre in Toronto in 2013, the play had a second production in Edmonton the next year, produced by Theatre Network at the Roxy. Edmonton is home for Beth Graham, who was previously best known as a co-creator of The Drowning Girls. At the end of The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble the audience learns that the timer, the cooking, and even the salt and pepper shakers have been tools to help Iris pass the time before she is due to drive to her mother’s home and “discover” her body: Bernice has decided to end her life before Alzheimer’s takes away her dignity, and she has convinced Iris to be the child that helps her plan. Graham has chosen a very gentle way to talk about a very difficult subject, and one can imagine that a skillful production of this play would carry a real emotional impact. The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, but lost to David Yee’s play, carried away on the crest of a wave.

The published text of carried away on the crest of a wave begins with a Foreword by eminent Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang and a Preface by Yee in which he describes his play as having “an anthological structure: it’s several short plays in a single container.” Each of the nine segments is intended to relate to the overarching theme of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The play premiered at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto in spring of 2013, directed by Nina Lee Aquino, with a cast of seven actors playing eighteen characters. An American production later that year at the Hub Theatre in Virginia reduced the cast size to six. The locations of the nine scenes range from Australia, Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, to North America, and even to an absurdist hole in the ground through which two men are falling. Most of the plays feature at least two male characters, with fewer females: a poetic scientist, a six year old girl, a Thai prostitute, and an Asian-American woman who has lost her entire family and abducted a small child in the chaotic aftermath of the tsunami. Each small play is a unique and well-polished gem, and the connections between them range from almost inconsequential—a man in one scene reacts to hearing a racist song introduced in another—to blatant. The penultimate lines of the play are “Because we are all connected. And we are, none of us, alone,” a message that audiences might have been trusted to receive through the production rather than the text. The playwright employs a number of theatrical images, such as a weeping statue, an overflowing bathtub, and a gathering storm, and further imaginative design choices should be enough to tie the scenes together.

The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt might be called a play for Jackie Maxwell, who commissioned, directed, and dramaturged it for the Shaw Festival’s 2015 season, and to whom the text is co-dedicated, or perhaps even a play for Fiona Reid, Shaw’s celebrated actor who starred as Sarah Bernhardt. Certainly the context of the Shaw Festival is evident in the large cast (five women and six men) and sprawling, ambitious action, and Bouchard acknowledges that George Bernard Shaw was an inspiration for The Divine because he “denounced the ravages of capitalism and the hypocrisy of the religious hierarchy.” The time is December 1905, the various locations are “evoked in the dormitory of the prestigious Grand Seminary” in Quebec City, and the premise is the historical fact of Bernhardt on tour. The all-male environment that transforms into different places brings to mind the prison setting of Bouchard’s play Lilies, while the encounter between a young seminarian inspired by a visiting actress is reminiscent of the priest and the painter in The Madonna Painter. Here, young Michaud writes a play for The Divine Sarah, drawing on the life of his friend Talbot, who is offered a deal and must make an impossible choice forced upon him by desperate poverty: in order to save his younger brother from being a child labourer, he must deny the sexual abuse he and generations of boys have endured.

The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble and carried away on the crest of a wave use the medium of theatre to allow audiences to contemplate devastations—disease, natural disasters—over which we have no power but a compassionate response. In The Divine, Bouchard has his characters use theatre to expose experiences of poverty, abuse, and injustice. Bouchard’s text begins with a quote from Sarah Bernhardt and works it into the play: “What would life be without art? Eating, drinking, sleeping, praying, and dying. Why go on living?” All three plays, each in its own way, could be seen as a response to her question.

 



This review ““What would life be without art?”” originally appeared in Asian Canadian Critique Beyond the Nation. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 227 (Winter 2015): 142-43.

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