The SkirtsAFire Festival is celebrating the work of women in theatre with a diverse program of multidisciplinary arts March 10th to 13th at venues on 118th Avenue in Edmonton. Click Here for more on the festival’s many exciting events.
Halfway through her story, playwright Johnna Adams brutally challenges her audience by offering this suggestion: If you want to draw attention to a cause, use the story of a dead child. Political unrest? Dead Child. Cure for Cancer? Dead child. Drunk driving? Dead, dead, dead child.
This kind of macabre “hook” has been widely used to advertise causes both local and global for decades. Gut-wrenching stories of personal loss so dominate the media that, in the deluge of our instant of pathos, we may fail to identify the propagandizing of child mortality. We may forget that that child was indeed a person in and of themselves or, what’s worse, overlook the plight of those who have been left behind to unpick the impossible knot of how to simply go on with life after such unnatural events.
Like the mythical Gordian’s Knot to which the title refers, Adams’ play fearlessly throws us into the inconceivably complex and troubling aftermath of atrocity, but there are no loopholes here. Set in a classroom during a truly horrific parent-teacher conference, we scrutinize the circumstances of an 11 year old boys death through both public and private lenses, begging the terrifying question, When it takes a village to raise a child, who then is to blame?
This “Pick of the Fringe” first played in Edmonton last summer. Now remounted for the SkirtsAFire celebration of women in the arts, new complexities emerge from this morally ruthless two-hander as mother and teacher struggle to come to terms with the roles they played in young Gideon’s life, and death. Although they have both been instrumental in his upbringing, they’ve known slightly different Gideons, for no child is the same at home as at school. Each needs something from the other in order to complete the picture of the sad events and begin to grope past culpability and towards closure.
Mother Corryn (Liana Shannon), certainly helped by her confrontational and stubborn personality, freely demands information from her son’s teacher regarding his final days in school. Undaunted by convention, Corryn challenges the idea that children are untouched innocents who must be wrapped in cotton batting to survive their precious formative years.
However, Ms Clark (Amber Lewis), more emotionally guarded but no less stubborn, is caught in an impossible political muzzle as so many teachers are these days. The responsibility of protecting the other children weighs heavy on her, and she is reluctant to divulge any information which might make the school culpable in any way.
For over an hour, audience and characters wait for the principle to arrive and legitimize the meeting, but we all know she’ll never show. The situation is too dangerous for the school not to have a lawyer present for such a meeting and so a desperate mother and a deeply shaken teacher are trapped together in a room where they do not want to be. It is always difficult to watch characters wait, let alone in a situation they want desperately to escape, and over 90 minutes the writing becomes repetitive and the action empty, trying to reinforce an awkwardness we don’t need to be told twice to feel.
However, simply cut the script down and allow the action to carry the content, and the pace and tension of the play would have us hooked. We are already engaged by the complexity of the situation and the human struggles of the characters held within its confines. Our minds buzz with questions as we scrutinize the many thought-provoking problems, but with a constantly drooping energy, it’s difficult to remain captivated.
Despite these dramatic flatlines, there is some truly beautiful writing which encourages us to re-examine the societies of children and their perceptions of self. Calling to mind such classic dissections of juvenile societies as Lord of the Flies, we are let into Gideon’s world piece by piece as his school and home lives collide post-mortem.
Soon, he ceases to be a poster child to be slapped across a cause, or a trauma for his fellow classmates, or a black mark on a teacher’s record, or a stamp of failure across a parents forehead. The watery generalizations of “dead child” ebb away and we can see glimpses of who Gideon the person was, and who he could have been.
Though the content is certainly uncomfortable, and the script a bit too long, this production is certainly worth taking in. I recommend you allow time afterwards to decompress and air your reactions over a large glass of wine.
Gideon’s Knot is part of the SkirtsAFire Festival this weekend in Edmonton. It plays at the Black Box theatre in the Alberta Avenue Community Centre until March 13th. Tickets can be purchased at the door or online.