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


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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