The Supine Cobbler- The Maggie Tree- Backstage Theatre, Edmonton

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Written by Jill Connell

Directed by Vanessa Sabourin

Running at The Backstage Theatre until April 23rd

The Supine Cobbler is at the heart a very brave and truthful collective offering. Playwright Jill Connell and the incredible team of artists at The Maggie Tree have offered an inspired new way to approach the dark and unsettling experience of abortion with perhaps the cleverest and most affecting dramatic story-telling I’ve seen.

“For a long time I wanted to be a man when I grew up. I wanted to be a person with a story” says Connell. Inspired by the Western films she grew up loving, she commandeers the overtly masculine genre for her own purposes-“To create a hero story for girls”.

Walking into the theatre space, we pass the whisky bar where you can enjoy a shot of somethin’ strong to wet your whistle, and we can almost imagine John Wayne sitting on one of the bar stools shooting somebody the evil eye from under his brim. Our characters mill about in leather boots, dusty traveling coats, shadowy stetsons, and a saloon style piano plunks away in the corner. With the audience sat on either side of the space, a wide Main Street opens up in the traverse; the arena for a classic cowboy show-down.

Spoiled by the richly stylized atmosphere, music, and of course whisky, we almost forget we’re here to see “a play about abortion”.

The Supine Cobbler has no linear plot, necessarily. The setting, although mainly in an abortion clinic, is fluid and changes depending on the needs of the characters. The Doctor, played by Michelle Mitenkovic, leads us through these transitions and welcomes us to pull up a seat to hear this legendary campfire story, although, as with all great legends, it can never truly be retold exactly as it happened.

The Cobbler, our hero, arrives at the clinic with her side kick, The Kid. I could say heroine, but in the world of the play, the character doesn’t need to be distinguished as the female form of a male idea. Kristi Hansen’s Cobbler has all the masculinity and macho swagger of Clint Eastwood, making her current circumstances in the clinic all the more compelling.

During their time in the empty waiting room, others come to join them. The Cobbler’s dead sister, The Dancer, and her missing-presumed-dead best friend, The Lover, both drift in like tumble weeds to share their stories and offer what they can to our hero. However they came to be there, whether they are ghosts or thoughts or memories, is irrelevant. They need to be there to make their contributions to the story.

The use of a typically masculine Western theme, described by Connell as “gritty and unapologetic when it comes to life and death”, is extremely affecting. This cast of women has wholly embraced the gun-slinging, spit-hawking spirit of the West and exploit it to the full as they jostle for dominance on stage. They naturally inhabit everything we might expect from the great classic cowboys and the framework serves the story well in its dual comedic/dramatic nature.

Hansen’s lanky, trail-wise Cobbler contrasts starkly with her ballet-dancing sister, but both have a truly western eye-for-an-eye attitude. As the siblings scrap over un-burried grudges and do everything in their power to push each others most vulnerable buttons, a true to life depiction of sisterhood emerges in all its complexity. Lora Brovald brings unbridled comic flare and showmanship to The Dancer, who’s story should circumstantially be a sad one. But none of the women dwell on the tragedy of their individual or collective circumstances. Instead, they allow the story to be told honestly and unburdened by potentially overwhelming darkness.

The Lover, we’re told, is The Cobbler’s best friend, but as the action progresses we see that this connection is so much more than a two dimensional idea of platonic friendship. Connell suggests that our best friends can be the most significant romances of our lives, with all the possessiveness, manipulation and complex love of any intimate relationship.

We get a tempting glimpse into the pairs’ history as old stories are shared, or deliberately kept private, and Melissa Thingelstad’s raw and roughed-edged but ultimately sensitive portrayal of the out-lawed Lover begins to strip back the hard cowboy exterior to reveal true care and love, as well as jealousy and regret.

All the while, The Kid looks on. She learns from these women, as does every apprentice, by watching, replicating, and eventually striking out with her own convictions. Jayce McKenzie is sidesplittingly funny and delightfully bonkers as the feisty Kid, full of piss-and-vinegar with a wild imagination and a convincingly sinister streak as she learns to adapt to the harsh reality of her world.

The highly symbolic, non-linear world of these female Lone Rangers seems to mirror other imagery-loaded mediums. Visual art, rich in symbolism and complex imagery, can express our most difficult experiences through a representational or seemingly abstract creative medium. Translating trauma into art is an essential tool towards deeper understanding, healing even, for both the creator and the observer. In The Supine Cobbler, Western-style archetypes, symbolism, and imagery are used as vehicles to explore and work through the traumatic experiences of these women and how they’ve been changed as people, in their relationships, and in the eyes of society.

Although some might still see it as “a play about abortion”, we would be robbing ourselves of its richness if we confined it to such a narrow cage. Unlike viewing a painting- one image which allows you time to formulate your response to its themes- theatre is alive. We have to give ourselves over to story telling that lives, breaths and indeed dies in front of us.

There are endless truths to be mined from this incredible play, but I would encourage you to save those analyses for later, perhaps with a stiff drink. For now, allow these phenomenally talented women to take you on a journey, to tell you a story that runs deeper than linear plot devices or sensical dialogue. So just trust yer gut and get yer hide to that theatre ’cause this run’s a short’un, and as John Wayne said, “We’re burnin’ daylight”.

The Supine Cobbler runs at the Backstage Theatre until April 23rd.

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Bad Jews- Theatre Calgary-Max Bell Theatre, Calgary

Theatre Calgary - Bad Jews

Written by Joshua Harmon

Directed by Valerie Planche

Running at the Max Bell Theatre in Calgary until April 10th

 

If you ask a Canadian “Where are you from”, you will most likely hear something like “My family are German” or “I have an Irish background”. Living in a country as young as Canada, many of us pine for that exotic mother-land from whence we came, something older, more culturally potent on which to plant our flag of cultural-identity.

Canadians are still forging our shared cultural identity whilst also trying to keep alive our unique family histories through heirlooms, traditions, memories, whatever managed to survive the trip here. This cultural hole we’re desperate to fill may have been opened by our history as colonial immigrants; a hole I’m sure our ancestors felt gaping within themselves as they left behind everything they’d ever known, never to see it again, forsaking the old ways and striking out into the new world

“Identity”, according to Valerie Planche’s director’s notes, “is fluid”. She suggests that trauma experienced by our forbears can leave marks on us. Whether we recognize their origins or not, these events in history which have had such lasting impact on our family members, on our peoples on a larger scale, will reverberate in us as well.

Whatever our cultural backgrounds as individuals, Theatre is essential in shaping, documenting, and challenging our cultural identity as a whole. Theatre is created by us, for us, about us, about others, and is especially important in times of transition or hardship.

Joshua Harmon’s play obviously focusses on the specific struggles of how three Generation Y cousins (and one girlfriend) interact with their Jewish tradition, religion and history following the death of the family patriarch, who was a Holocaust survivor. Despite this cultural specificity, Theatre Calgary’s electric production is also rich in universal truths. The result is a highly accessible exploration of what cultural identity means to us- touching, scathing, funny, and bursting with conundrums as we explore our universal struggle with identity, especially what it means within the realms of family.

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(l to r) Jeremy Ferdman, Bobbi Goddard, David Sklar in Bad Jews. Photo by Trudie Lee.

The consequences of cultural assimilation, the deep impact of forgotten traditions, the guilt of  generations who have lost touch with their heritage, and the immense responsibility of continuing your family’s story, are just a few of the complex and vexing issues explored within the production. Planche’s tactful and intuitive direction encourages audiences to consider these issues very deeply, and her generosity as a theatre maker shows as she shares her very personal connection to these dilemmas.

Although due care has been taken to cast artists with Jewish backgrounds, director Valerie Planche’s roots in both Plains Cree and French European have obviously provided vital perspective. Her candid director’s notes divulge her own troubling personal struggles with identity; “Natives and genociders co-mingling in my veins”. As memories of the Holocaust live on through Feygenbaum family stories on stage, ghosts of other cultural genocides echo throughout the theatre and elisions with Canada’s own cultural atrocities, and others around the world, cannot be denied. How do we move on from these horrific defining moments in our histories and keep our cultures alive, help them to thrive even?

Also essential to the strength of this thought-provoking production are the talented young actors who make up the cast, including a stunning central performance from Bobbi Goddard. I first saw her as a powerfully complex Prospera in Shakespeare by the Bow’s Tempest, and her strength of spirit on stage in this production refuses to be stifled. As the vibrant, strong-willed Daphna, her dynamism thrives as she fights to single-handedly embody the heart and soul of the family’s Jewish identity. Harmon’s writing of a modern 20-something Jewish woman is constantly nuanced with what sounds like expressions she’s picked up from other family members. Through Daphna, we hear other voices from within the family and see how they’ve shaped her from childhood, beautifully illustrating the subtle, natural absorption of our family history through the influence of our loved ones. The role is as demanding as it is rewarding and Goddard more than rises to the challenge; I think we can expect many great performances from this soulful young artist.

Many find it difficult to sit in a theatre and experience something troubling, something that makes you think, something that’s honest and true to life but doesn’t necessarily reinforce the satisfying idea of “happily ever after”. Greek tragedians believed that experiencing devastating atrocities through characters on a stage gave them a crucial cathartic cleansing. Here in Alberta, we tend to spend our money on more uplifting escapist entertainment; a musical or comedy that leaves us feeling bright, cheery, and allows us to forget whatever daily struggles are bringing us down. While Bad Jews offers such comforts as relatable characters and belly laughs throughout, more important is the conversation it encourages us to have with each other about the role cultural identity plays both in our lives as individuals and within the community.

Theatre is meant to provoke a reaction, and this production has obviously sparked so much debate and discussion that Theatre Calgary holds a talk-back session after each performance, something they usually only do on select dates across a run. The impact of the production was immeasurable as people from all backgrounds came together to share their thoughts and experiences; together, tackling the complex questions on the journey towards understanding ourselves, each other, and the significance of cultural identity. That is this productions true theatrical triumph.

You could take this story and, with a few tweaks here or there, apply it to any four young people from any given culture anywhere. Imagine the possibilities if we moved the story from a place of privilege, i.e. a swanky Upper West-Side apartment occupied by a self professed upper middle class family like the Feygenbaums, and set it in the home of a newly resettled family from, say, Syria. Perhaps that’s extreme, but theatre can do that. A powerful story can engender further thought, debate, perhaps even change and we can all benefit from the possibilities.

Bad Jews runs until April 10th at the Max Bell Theatre, Calgary