Stage Door Review 2019

After the Fire

Jan 17, 2019

✭✭

by Matthew MacKenzie, directed by Brendan McMurtry-Howlett 

Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts

in Association with Native Earth Performing Arts and The Theatre Centre, The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St West, Toronto

January 10-19, 2019

“A Chickadee with Two Heads"

People will naturally expect much from Edmonton playwright Matthew MacKenzie’s whose Bears won so much acclaim in Toronto last year. The subject matter of MacKenzie’s new play After the Fire, set a year after the 2016 wildfire that nearly destroyed Fort McMurray, would seem to provide sufficient fuel for MacKenzie’s continuing study of the ill effects of petro-capitalism, but the drama falls prey to a technique of withholding information that provokes tedium rather than tension.

The Fort McMurray fire spread across 590,000 hectares before it was declared under control and involved the evacuation of more than 100,000. This was the largest wildfire evacuation in Canadian history and the damage caused made it the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history.

Strangely enough, however, from the way MacKenzie’s four characters speak, you would never know they had been through such a disaster. Except that some families have been forced to move in with others, the main topics of conversation are personal relationships and hockey. The four characters cheering on players at a little-league girls’ hockey game start out the play and references to the game seem to dominate references to the fire. The first discussion is actually about the lack of chocolate Timbits in a box that is supposed to be an assortment. One might think that this is just a banal introduction to what will be more important subject matter. But no, the dialogue remains on this same level of unimportance throughout the play.

After the game, the only time all four are together in the same place, MacKenzie breaks them up into two pairs. One pair are friends Barry (Sheldon Elter) and Ty (Jesse Gervais), who seek out a spot in the woods to dig a deep hole. Why they are digging MacKenzie allows to remain a mystery until the very end. 

Meanwhile, two sisters, Carmell (Louise Lambert), Ty’s ex, and Laura (Kaitlyn Riordan), Barry’s wife, are also in the woods though walking about its perimeter. Why they are walking together and what their destination is MacKenzie also allows to remain a mystery until the very end. 

Ty, somehow once connected with the Athabasca oil sands that surround Fort McMurray, is angry not just because Carmell left him, but because she is dating an environmental activist nicknamed “Greenpeace”. Whether it is intentional or not, it takes too long to work out that “Greenpeace” is supposed to be a person Carmell is involved with not the organization. Did Carmell symbolically leave Ty for someone who is environmentally responsible? That would be some clue to the play’s structure, but MacKenzie insists that Carmell left because of Ty’s cocaine habit.

The only person whose life seems to have improved since the fire is the Métis Barry, who is building a collection of all the tiny wonders of nature from insects to small birds. He even keeps a two-headed chickadee he found in a pocket next to his heart because his thinks it is a special sign – a sign of what is never stated. 

MacKenzie’s desire to withhold all information that would give away his surprise at the end has the negative effect of draining the dialogue of anything important. Not only is the dialogue banal and repetitive but both pairs get into the same pointless fights more than once for no apparent reason. Director Brendan McMurtry-Howlett does not help matters by having all four shout their lines for the first third of the play. Then, for unknown reasons, he has them return to a more normal level of speech which they maintain to the end. The price, however, is that if the first half hour presented any useful exposition, it is lost since uncontrolled voices don’t contribute to clear delivery of information.

MacKenzie has not given the actors intriguing roles to play, primarily because he is too keen to keep their motivations along with the purpose of their actions hidden. Louise Lambert’s Carmell and Kaitlyn Riordan’s Laura might as well be interchangeable except that Riordan’s Laura is bossier and Lambert’s Carmell is meeker. 

Sheldon Elter’s Barry and Jesse Gervais’s Ty are more of a contrast. Gervais plays Ty as a pitiful loser who alternates in blaming himself and everyone else for his failures. Elter’s Barry, however, is not only no complainer but someone who hardly speaks at all. When he does speak it is to express his delight in the wonders of nature that he now collects, little marvels of survival amid the destruction. Most miraculous of these is the white-spotted long-horn beetle that are attracted to dead and dying trees and deliberately lay their eggs on logs that are still warm. Insects like these are essential to the rejuvenation of burnt forests and it’s odd that MacKenzie doesn’t make this beetle more of a symbol in the play. Instead, he chooses the two-headed chickadee that Barry wears near his heart as a symbol of something that supposedly could see in all directions.

The audience surrounds Alison Yanota’s set that consists of a huge mound of black mulch that Barry and Ty dig at for the entire play. Though enormous, the mound still requires that the actors have to fill it in halfway through to resume their digging. Meanwhile Carmell and Laura pick their way around the perimeter of the playing area, sometimes crossing the the mound, while both couples feign not seeing the other.

For a playwright who has so warped the natural flow of his play for the sake of a double surprise, it is disappointing, to say the least, to discover that MacKenzie’s surprise is not worth waiting for. It is more of a joke than any kind of comment on surviving a fire, living near oil sands or anything one might think of as important to understanding the action.

Those who were excited by Bears, will find After the Fire a major letdown. The main good news is that Bears is returning to Toronto for a run February 28 to March 17. Not every playwright can follow up a major success with another major success, and that is unfortunately the case with After the Fire

Christopher Hoile 

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photo: (from top) Louise Lambert, Jesse Gervais, Kaitlyn Riordan and Sheldon Elter; Louise Lambert and Kaitlyn Riordan. © 2018 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets, visit theatrecentre.org.