Stage Door Review

The Scavenger’s Daughter

Sunday, January 20, 2019

✭✭

by Susanna Fournier, directed by ted witzel

PARADIGM Productions, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto

January 17-27, 2019

Webb to Sarah: “You speak and speak and say nothing”

Susanna Fournier’s latest play, The Scavenger’s Daughter, is the second in her trilogy of plays with the overarching title “The Empire”. The first play was The Philosopher’s Wife that ran December 7-16 last year. The third play will be Four Sisters that will run as part of the Luminato Festival June 11-16 this year. The publicity for the trilogy claims that the plays can be seen separately from each other. Since I missed the run of The Philosopher’s Wife, I necessarily was forced in watching The Scavenger’s Daughter to discover how true this statement was.

The Empire covers 500 years of imagined alternative history. As Fournier explains, “I wrote The Empire to begin unravelling the threads of imperial power… how individuals and communities internalize these systems and enact them in the most intimate realms of life.” The Scavenger’s Daughter takes place twenty years after the events of The Philosopher’s Wife and has no characters in common. In SD, the main character Jack (Josh Johnston) claims his mother was a dog and that during his six months’ leave from his military camp he was taught to read by a philosopher. Whether Jack’s mother is the Philosopher’s wife and whether the Philosopher who taught Jack is the same as the one in the previous play are details I do not know. They are also details that don’t appear necessary to understand this play. 

In Fournier’s alternative world a war has been raging throughout the lifetimes of all the characters. The ruler of those we meet, the King, is seemingly trying to unite the entire world under his rule and his goal is to make a massive push toward the sea. The only problem is that he doesn’t know where the sea is. This should be a comic situation but Fournier and her director ted witzel (all lower case) treat all the events in the play as deadly serious. 

Jack returns to meet his best friend Ash (Conor Wylie) and to tell his one-time sweetheart Sarah (Samantha Brown) that he now has a fiancée, one chosen for him by the Philosopher who taught him to read. Jack puts off telling her so long that she eventually finds out herself. Sarah’s mother owns a brothel and the camp’s Cook (Christopher Stanton) is one of its most faithful patrons. Sarah’s mother, however, is far more dependent on her happiness from the morphine that Ash sells her from the military medical supplies. 

After an overlong exposition Fournier finally decides to give the play a plot by having a message arrive for the camp Commander Webb (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio) that the King has declared all the opium fields as his property and that therefore anyone caught selling morphine without the King’s permission is a traitor. That, of course, is exactly what Ash has been doing, so he and Jack try to cobble together a scheme to find a scapegoat. Again, although this would seem to be more suitable as the plot to a comedy, Fournier and witzel treat this problem with unshakable earnestness.

Fournier claims that SD is involved in “toxic ideas of what it means to be a man, a nation, and a citizen”, but she treads where many others have gone before. Ash’s history of warfare devolving from when armies fought each other to when armies fought civilians is no revelation but simply a description of known history. 

Even once Fournier gives SD a plot, it is still not particularly interesting because she is reluctant to explore any of the conflicts in her characters that would make them complex. We don’t expect Jack to be a complex character because Fournier sets him up as an innocent who has returned to a camp that has taken a dark turn in his absence. Two episodes have made a mark on his life – one is seeing his mother executed before his eyes, the second is being tortured by means of “The Scavenger’s Daughter”. Fournier never gives us the reason for either event. 

“The Scavenger’s Daughter” (a misunderstanding of its inventor’s name Leonard Skevington) is explained on a pixelboard that is part of Michelle Tracey’s set used for stage directions and other messages, as a form of torture opposite to the rack, in that the victim is not stretched out but rather forced into a compressed package – kneeling with the head between the knees. Jack is later strapped into such a position, but strangely enough, given that it is the play’s title, neither Fournier nor witzel ever show us the device that is called “The Scavenger’s Daughter”, a specialized iron A-frame with spaces for the head, hands and feet to be locked into position.

Why Fournier chooses this of all torture devices for her title yet does not show it, why she gives Jack nightmares about it but does not explain why it was used on him and why this form of torture is pertinent to the action are never explained. If the title is meant to have a double meaning, it is lost since the only daughter in the play has a businesswoman not a scavenger as a mother.

Jack has only three weeks left in the military since the Philosopher has bought out his contract. Yet, Jack for no reason runs amok on a murderous, arsonous rampage that causes his arrest. The only justification that Fournier gives Jack is to say that his mother was a dog. For such a major plot point that just isn’t sufficient. What particular pressure does the dutiful Jack have on him to cause such an action? 

Josh Johnston plays Jack as a very amiable if naive young man whose main function is to provide a contrast with the four jaded characters around him. Yet, even innocent characters, let’s say Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear, can be given insight and important statements to make. For Jack, Fournier can think of nothing. Fournier has Jack quote from texts he has apparently read, but Wylie suggests that Jack doesn’t really know what they mean.

Conor Wylie is also a fine actor and lends Ash a feeling of dread from when we first meet him. On the one hand Ash is trading in morphine and fears to be caught, on the other he is taxed with finding the culprit by Webb and doesn’t know how to get out of the trap. Wylie well plays Ash’s escalating fear, but Fournier gives us no explanation about how he, rather than any of the other soldiers, came to be in this position. Fournier and hence Wylie can offer us no insight into his character. Was he once an honest man turned bad by temptation or is he just weak? Neither Fournier nor Wylie lets us know.

Commander Webb should have a rich internal conflict since he now works for the very military that once conquered his own people. Fournier even has someone directly ask Webb how he feels about this, but she has him shrug off the question thus missing the chance to give us some insight into why the conquered should willingly take the side of the conqueror. That she should leave this unexplored shows that Fournier is not too rigorous about delving into the essential topics she claims she will. Her incuriousness leaves Carlos Gonzalez-Vio with little to do except appear as a menacing presence, at which he he very good, but it’s a major pity not to give him a richer character to play.

The one nominally comic character is the Cook of Christopher Stanton. If Fournier had any gift for comedy, she could have made the Cook’s cynicism an outrageously funny commentary on the action, rather like that of Thersites in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Unfortunately, Fournier is unable to find anything especially witty for him to say which leaves Stanton to rely on his abundant comic abilities of expression and gesture to fill out the cartoon of the Cook that Fournier has only sketched.

It’s too bad that Samantha Brown, the only woman in the play, should also be the weakest actor. Besides being unable to project she seems unable to vary her facial expression or tone of voice. There is potential for conflict in her character between mourning the lost love of Jack and the unsentimental business of running her mother’s brothel. Yet, Fournier provides no such examination of the conflict and Brown pretty much sleepwalks through the part making boredom stand in for the varied emotions she could display.

As some compensation for the lack of incision in Fournier’s text itself is the abundantly grim atmosphere created by set and lighting designer Michelle Tracey, sound designer Ben McCarthy and projection designer Wesley McKenzie. The set consists mostly of a pile of black mulch from which Jack emerges naked (for no known reason) at the start of the play. Lighting cues from extreme angles lend the show an expressionist look. When characters send despatches (to whom is unknown), they appear in sickly green characters on a pixelboard upstage left yet only spell out the first few words. When Webb or the Cook expand upon the theme “war is bad”, McKenzie projects scenes from real conflicts on the sacking that lines the lower half of the back of the stage while also projecting glib catch phrases on top of these. This is meant to create some sort of grim irony but it merely looks like the creators exploiting stock footage for its look rather than its meaning. What impresses most is McCarthy’s disquieting sound design, especially when the bass notes cause the seats themselves to rumble. 

The fact that Jack has learned to read and relishes his new talent among a group of illiterates is something that one might think important, but which Fournier does not develop. All she shows is that the others think it is a skill that is useless at best and dangerous at worst. Yet, Fournier somehow means literacy to be important since the scenes are divided according to the letters of the alphabet projected on the back wall. 

By the conclusion of SD we can see how Fournier has intended an ironic symmetry between how the play begins and how it ends. Yet, to get from one to the other she has had to give Jack a bout of unexplained destructiveness rather than showing how the progress from beginning to end was part of an inevitable process. 

Along the way Fournier has a would-be horrendous secret about the camp to expose, but it is only horrendous if you have never read Jonathan Swift’s classic satire “A Modest Proposal” (1729) or seen the cheesy 1973 movie Soylent Green. Other playwrights have been able to create far more disturbing visions of a dystopian future than Fournier. Most notable of these is ne plus ultra of Sarah Kane’s Blasted (1995). Philip Ridley’s Pitchfork Disney (1991) or his Mercury Fur (2005) have lesser impact but are both more imaginative and more transgressive horror-shows than anything Fournier has created in SD. Since Fournier apparently has nothing new to say about a world in a state of perpetual war, The Scavenger’s Daughter comes off not just as portentous but pretentious. Can I wait until June for the completion of the trilogy set 297 years after the events of this play? Yes, quite easily.

Christopher Hoile


Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Josh Johnston as Jack; Josh Johnston as Jack) and Samantha Brown as Sarah, © 2019 Bernie Fournier; Carlos Gonzalez-Vio as Webb, © 2019 Haley Garnett.  

For tickets, visit www.buddiesinbadtimes.com