British bad-boy playwright Howard Barker’s 1984 shocker set in Russia as WW II drew to a close was given its Canadian première at Equity Showcase Theatre but the production suffered as much from the stifling heat as the repressive policies and vainglorious personalities wreaked havoc with the innocent millions on both sides of the conflict.
The sauna-like atmosphere, partially self-inflicted by set designer Marian Wihak’s plastic, translucent shower-curtain strips that encircled the extended performance space, made total concentration on the thirteen-member ensemble more of a challenge than a pleasure while observing their considerable skills. And if the audience was drenched in their own juices as Churchill (Katherine East very plausibly in touch with Britain’s storied leader’s feminine side) and Stalin (Trevor Martin coming across more as a cruise ship captain than the nefarious dictator) bargained through editorializing interpreters, the performers must have been near unsafe dehydration before the first chicken joke (delivered ably if a tad too frantically by Gregory Thomas as the stand-up Scotsman, McGroot).
Director Christopher Brauer has done a commendable job of using the space to good advantage and—except for a far too heavy dose of Prokofiev as the prelude to Act II—kept the pace moving well, admirably assisted by Heidi Strauss’ choreography—notably the marching bits. (Ironically, the oft-censured, too much “formalism”—composer’s Seventh Symphony received “The Stalin Prize” just months before they died within three hours of each other on March 5, 1953—robbing both of the last word in the battle for creative freedom in an era where condemnation of art and shallow, favour-winning dedications were as cynical as the Five Year Plans were successful.) Unfortunately, Brauer settled for a far too narrow dynamic range, letting Barker’s snappy dialogue come blaring out of his characters with as much unrelenting force as the atrocities being railed about. Generous sprinklings of pianissimo, or sotto voce, would dramatically expand the tonal spectrum, bringing sonic relief to the predominant monochrome of relentless declamation.
The script is so rich with its own colour and imagery (“Luck is what hope shits in a panic;” “A letter has authority, the poem, not at all.”) that, like a good jazz-band rhythm section, the driving forces should be more felt than heard, allowing the leads to slip in and around the themes with ease and—seemingly—effortless finesse.
In many ways it fell to Danielle Wilson as Ilona and Thomas (in his other role as photography assistant) to glue the action together as they travel the war zone, capturing the horrific stills of devastation, doom and death. Victor’s admission that “he’s never looked into anyone’s eyes,” is a memorable moment, as was Richard Harte’s (playing Poscrebyshev—Stalin’s private secretary) reaction where his face is a masterpiece of rejection and angst as the Russian leader succumbs to Ilona’s charms then—later—further humiliated by his “Daddy’s” chiding putdown: “You rub yourself.”
Throughout it all, “The Girl” (Elke Schroeder) peddles, cowers and poses as the conscience of the victims, given just a brief line that magnificently brings Barker’s point home as much as her unspoken presence did up to then. Power, indeed.
Paul Major’s lighting design added texture and depth to the mood, but—surprisingly—never provided a flash for the hard-working photographers as they recorded eerie landscapes and self-centred portraits.
Work such as this demands steady champions and a committed crew on both sides of the stage. This Equity Showcase production—uneven as some of it is—should, nevertheless, be lauded for the courage of all concerned in bringing it to life now, even as the horrors and evil illuminated continue unabated in too many parts of our global village. JWR