Russ Hunt's Reviews

by Len Falkenstein

Theatre Free Radical
November 11-13, 2004; August 12-13, 2005

Fredericton theatregoers have over the past few years come to expect intense and deep considerations of painful political and social issues from Len Falkenstein's plays, along with a profoundly creative and quirky theatrical imagination. They've also come to expect that whatever happens there will be a high proportion of exposition and argumentation (entertainingly presented), and a group of competent, exciting student actors in situations which are a good deal less than familiar: his plays are populated with, well, with people like this: urban planners with Cruezfeld-Jakob's disease, cyborgs, vampires, extraterrestrial visitors, anarchist activist librarians. The much-awaited Doppelgänger, which opened at Memorial Hall on Remembrance Day, fulfills all those expectations -- perhaps especially the one about the theatrical imagination.

I might argue, in fact, that the most powerful element of this post-9/11 surreal agitprop one-acter is the set, which is composed entirely of four 40-gallon oil barrels and a floor-mounted translucent projection screen. The barrels are each equipped with a pair of holes, which serve as handles and armholes, among other things, and the screen is used for a wide variety of elaborate and extremely well-timed visual images, ranging from titles to pictures to shadows, sometimes all at once and sometimes from both sides of the screen at once (so, for example, a back-projection might have a shadow from the front laid on it, or shadows from a footlight-level instrument combined with shadows from two or three sources behind the screen). The only other props I noticed were a pair of flashlights used at one point by the play's two chorus-figures to light their faces scarily from beneath. That was it. Along with the Mike Johnson's usual effective lights and sound, those props, used on the bare -- and, I still think, dauntingly difficult -- Memorial Hall stage, were what the four actors had to work with.

The spine of the play is a simple (but, I think, fairly resonant in 2004) story: a Canadian employee of a Calgary oil firm is captured by -- well, what you call them is part of what the play is about: insurgents? rebels? terrorists? -- and held, at first for ransom and then as a spy to be tortured and finally killed. We know from the outset that there's no hope for poor Adam C. Smith (Adam Smith? Is that a Hint, Len?), because, after a prologue in which three characters dance and drum to a middle-eastern recording and are interrupted by what is obviously an inept honkie trying to groove along, the first thing we see is the two chorus characters, from either side of the stage, alternately and sometimes in unison, going through the medical findings on an examination of the body, cataloguing bruises, burns, lacerations and contusions, and all the other evidences that a good time has emphatically not been had by all.

The two chorus actors, who both play a number of other characters as well, are solidly played by Seann Murray and Chelsea Seale. Both are clear, coherent, appropriately sardonic and ironic, and their back-and-forth timing and choral speaking are impeccable. Murray, who was a striking Ariel in last month's Rougher Magic, and who is identified as responsible for the slide photography and design for this show, also plays, among others, the nattily attired friend of the hapless Adam, come, in a fantasy or two, to archly commiserate and offer the sort of cold comfort Job got from his friends. In his snapbrim hat and shades and with stage presence to burn, Murray perches on an oil barrel and diagnoses Adam's problems: " I forgot you experimented with socialism there for a while -- but you never inhaled, did you?"

Seale is similarly impressive: her appearance in a fantasy conversation as Adam's lost fiancée, left back in Calgary, is touchingly innocent and ditzy, even as we realize that such innocence is hardly distinguishable from plain ignorance ("no penguins?" she laments, as Adam explains that his fantasy's occurring in the Arctic, not the Antarctic), and we also come to see that not knowing and not understanding is a luxury we can afford because we're safely cocooned in a North America that doesn't need to know about the geopolitics of oil or the plight of civilians in places like Fallujah.

Nicholas Cole gives a brave and occasionally touching performance as the hapless victim, discovering, perhaps, that he's not as innocent as he'd thought he was, and in fact that perhaps his ideas of innocence and guilt are a little out of touch with the reality he has hurled himself into by coming here to build this oil pipeline to help this backward country "modernize." From his inept attempt to groove at the outset, to his attempt to explain to his unsympathetic captor how he came with the best interests of this poor country at heart, to the fantasies toward the end of his torment, standing soft and white in his shorts against a back projection of an Arctic waste, Cole is focused and somehow at the same time both pitiable and contemptible. Particularly spooky and powerful, I thought, was the way he remembered always feeling that somehow he wasn't just one person, that there was someone watching him, being with him . . . the someone, perhaps, for whom he's not entirely mistaken; the doppelgänger who somehow deserves his torture.

The "captor," the spokesperson for the radical, "terrorist," kidnappers, is played with remarkable power and passion by Matthew Spinney (in a role slightly reminiscent, at least because of the general-purpose Mideast / Eastern European accent, of the Romanian descendant of Dracula in last year's Free / Fall). His explanation of why his culture might reject Adam Smith's offer of wealth and consumerism reminded me of the Islamic fundamentalist hero of John Updike's The Coup -- or, of course, and more immediately of folks like Osama bin Laden: the revulsion for the consumerist, wasteful, sex-obsessed, individualistic, luxurious West plays itself out vividly in his sadistic oppression of Smith with his hapless, white, guilty innocence.

Although, as is sometimes the case with Falkenstein's scripts, I thought there were times when I had a bit more explanation than I needed, and times when the daring of the theatrical images got out of hand (Smith's fantasy of escape using oil drums as wings was a little hard to know how to react to), the power of this exploration of the way neither side in the great cultural confrontation of the current world understands "why the other side hates us," and what the consequences can be for all of us, is unrelieved, and entirely of a piece with the way it's staged and presented. I didn't leave the theatre humming the Johnny Cash number which ended the show, "Bury me not on the lone prairie"; instead, I left contemplating the unfathomable complexity of the web we weave with our global and personal self-deceptions. And thinking again about theatre's power to embody ideas and make them present for us.

Thoughts on a second viewing: usually, amateur plays develop and change remarkably over successive performances, as actors learn about audience responses and timing. Surprisingly, this production seemed so tightly choreographed that very little changed over the run. It was clearer on a second viewing that the script may have gone farther than it needed to in terms of explicitness: much of what is said might also have been shown (or, indeed, was shown). A couple of scenes were longer than they needed to be: the power of the ending of the play was weakened, it seemed to me and to a couple of other people I've spoken with, by the length of the fantasy dialogue in the Arctic between Adam Smith and his fiancée; and the "burial" of Smith in his pipeline seemed awkward. Still, powerful performances, precise technology, and passionate convictions add up to a pretty engaging evening.

Reflections on a revised version (August 2005): Although Falkenstein has said the new version, prepared for the Edmonton Fringe Festival, is revised, it wasn't clear to me that the revisions were radical or deep: on the other hand, on seeing it yet again I was less sure it requires much in the way of revision. The scenes which struck me as perhaps a bit long last time did not seem long in this version and perhaps have been tightened; the power of its theatrical imagination has almost certainly, in any case, been intensified by its being staged in the Black Box, where the actors' relation to the audience is more immediate and intimate, and the positioning of the audience allows us to relate better to scenes like the burial in the pipeline. The four actors are, if anything, even more tightly and precisely choreographed, and the radical spareness of the staging even more impressive. This is a powerful example of the kind of theatre I find especially engaging, and I hope the audiences at Edmonton recognize that power -- which might be especially strong out there in the oil patch.

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