By Ryan Griffith
NotaBle Acts Summer Theatre Festival
Readers of prose fiction are accustomed to attaching themselves to writers, to watching for the new book by Rohinton Mistry or swapping the latest Alice Munro with another reader. This doesn't happen very often with playwrights -- especially not with playwrights who are currently active. Sure, people might be watching for a new Tom Stoppard, but the chances that they'd actually get to see it performed (or even find a script for sale) are relatively remote, especially if you live in Fredericton rather than New York or London. But where a theatre community develops, people regularly get chances to follow the progress of playwrights. Because this is happening in Fredericton, it's become possible for theatregoers to speculate about what a playwright like Ryan Griffith might do next (and to expect, for example, that whatever it is, the title will be one syllable -- like, for example, Ilk or Pine).
Besides being able to predict at least the number of syllables in the title of his newest play, Lutz, we can also expect that whatever else the play might do, it will present convincing, subtle, passionate and authentically New Brunswick dialogue among young men (guy talk), and in this case we'd be right about that as well. Little else about Lutz, however, is predictable. Set in a derelict backwoods house somewhere in New Brunswick, at two different times, the play shows us episodes from two interleaved stories: one, the courtship and marriage of Joe and Marty, the other, the reunion of their two sons in the house many years later. The premise is that somewhere along the line the marriage fell apart, a third child (a daughter) was killed, probably by a bear (though the play leaves this ambiguous), the younger son (Christian) went off to Ottawa and became an Olympic figure skater, where he was joined by his mother while the older son (Pike) stayed home to "look after" his father, devastated by the loss of the rest of his family. At the time the figure-skating son returns, the father and mother are both dead and the brothers are, to say the least, mutually suspicious. We see quite a lot -- almost too much, though the quality of Griffith's dialogue between the two goes far toward making up for what might seem repetition -- of the relationship between the sons, working out their hostilities and incidentally letting us come to understand some of the darker history of the family. At the center of the play is the death of the sister, which Christian believes to have been caused by a Kodiak bear (this in spite of the fact that such bears do not count New Brunswick as part of their normal range), and for which he feels responsible. It seems to have been the memory of this and the weight of his obligations to his family that prevented him from winning an Olympic medal, and have driven him home to face his own demons.
It's an ambitious script, and one the NBActs community has taken with powerful seriousness, commitment, and imagination. It seems that everyone decided to follow Griffith's imagination wherever it took them all, and only afterward to look at whether it had gone so far as to make it difficult for an audience to follow. Mike Johnston's surreal set -- the house invaded by the forest, with ferns and vines embracing the refrigerator and cupboards and furniture, and a mysteriously suspended tree trunk hung with ferns, invoking a sort of rain forest fantasy of growth, creates an appropriately unrealistic and spooky context for the play, reminding us at every step that however earthy and realistic the dialogue, there's something else going on here. This may be reinforced by the fact that, early on during a scene change, the four kitchen chairs mysteriously rearrange themselves at the table: is this further evidence that we're not to take this at face value? Chris Saad's lighting -- particularly the fireflies playing across the jungle of ferns at the opening -- raises this question as well, as does the chilling bass-drone and keyboard score by Mike Doherty.
The cast, too, under the direction of Emma Tibaldo (who has been involved in the development of the script at the National Theatre School), allows the play to take them into extremities of emotion, and perhaps beyond: Tania Breen's Marta (while somewhat undeveloped as a character in Griffith's script) is passionate and quirky and attractive, and Charlie Rhindress's Joe is not only a convincingly enamored young man, but an appealingly ruined and uncomprehending abandoned father in the later scenes. But in many ways the play belongs to Caleb Marshall's Pike and Ben Ross's Christian, who carry most of the action and veer capably and with discipline through extremes of their relationship, from brotherly camaraderie to physical and psychic conflict. Especially impressive is the moment when, after an enraged physical battle, the younger and slighter Christian, victorious, announces that that's what you get for tangling with a figure skater: at that moment, it was easy to believe that he was suddenly actually stronger than his brother. Their relationship reminded me of Sam Shepard's True West translated to rural New Brunswick, and Marshall and Ross created the kind of intensity I associate with the best productions of that I've seen. In part this is engineered by Griffith's script, which offers us much we don't understand and counts on us to keep waiting to figure it out; but much, too is created by the way the actors focus on their characters' immediate motives, follow them to their extremes, and let the language and the situation speak for themselves. Both actors have the rhythm and music of Griffith's backwoods New Brunswick language down cold. In the penultimate scene, when Christian has manipulated Pike into going out hunting for the bear with him, the presence of the loaded guns is a wonderfully theatrical reminder that both are capable of violence and that the bear they're hunting may well be within either of them. The bizarre projected image of the figure-skating bear (as well as the accompanying vision of the lost Vera, carrying a handful of fireflies) which accompanies Christian's accidental death is, perhaps, the culmination of all the peripheral absurdities and impossibilities that have lurked in the background: if the audience doesn't quite understand it, it's clear that there's some kind of underlying coherence, somewhere in Griffith's imagination.
In keeping with the tradition of NBActs, we were invited to think of the play as still under development (indeed, the ending was truncated after the opening night), and I think most members of the audience were never quite sure what to make of Christian's passionate commitment to the idea that it was a Kodiak bear that killed his sister. Is he deluding himself? Is he hiding from his own responsibility? Or was that bear -- which, weirdly, Christian and Pike both smell on their fatal hunting expedition into the wilds to avenge Vera's death -- somehow actually out there still? In this production, we do glimpse the bear among the vines and ferns (and, wonderfully and oddly, see it in the dark, moving props, as the scene changes from the room during the courtship and marriage of Marta and Joe to the same room years later, as Pike greets and taunts his brother). What are we to make of the strange sound that occasionally causes Christian to drift out of a scene -- which we hear, but which clearly Pike does not? At the end, are we to see Pike, now the only surviving member of the family, as somehow transformed by the experience into someone who actually does answer his phone and deal with his obligations, or does he finally answer the phone in the hope that it's Christian, or Marta, or Vera, calling from another world?
It is these vaguely supernatural and unsettled questions which keep Lutz from being simply another exploration of the age-old story of the younger versus the older brother, or of courage and hope in the face of the desolation and hopelessness of life in the back woods of New Brunswick, in the style, perhaps, of David Adams Richards or Joy Corey (Losing Eddie). Whatever happens to this script as Griffith continues working on it, it is clear that no production could do it more justice: what needs to be worked on, and changed, can be decided on the basis of a profoundly professional and completely competent production. A playwright could hardly ask for a more effective and informative test drive.