Russ Hunt's Reviews

Traces ("Empreintes")
by Paul Bossé, translated by Glen Nichols

NotaBle Acts Summer Theatre Festival
August 5-8, 2004

One of the best things about a production advertised as a "workshop" is the possibility that you'll encounter a script which has evident and immediate potential, and feel that you're in on the dawn of something that might well be important. The workshop production of Glen Nichols' adaptation / translation of Paul Bossé's Empreintes (here titled Traces) that is the final production of the NotaBle Acts festival has some of that sense of possibility about it.

Like the opening production, Inspiration Point, and, indeed, like most of the shows this summer, Traces is still a long way from a polished or finished product. Though there are some gestures in the direction of staging, fundamentally what we saw was a script read by four actors and a stage manager figure who (rather like the stage manager Ilkay Silk introduced into Inspiration Point) introduced the performance and its conventions, read continuity and occasional stage directions, and stood in for offstage voices. It's difficult to be clear about what the play's premise is, as there seem to be a number of them (thematically, it's almost dreamlike in its free association pattern of a multiplicity of weirdly related ideas). The opening dramatizes a pair of anthropologists scholars trading inferences about the meaning of some archaeological evidence -- footprints, bones, etc. -- which, one of them is arguing, yield a complicated and rich story about a pair of australopithecines. At the same time, we watch the australopithecines acting out the story he is telling. There's an ambiguity built in about who's "in charge": in one way of seeing it, the image we see seems to be a product of the scholar's narrative -- the australopithecines are an enactment of his story. But in another (one invited by the way in which the two actions are related to each other by their staging) they seem to be in charge of what he sees, carefully planting their feet so as to create a certain impression, making marks in the ground. It's a neat way to imagine the relation between evidence and theory.

But it's not exactly this theory, or these primitive "people," we discover, that the play is about.

No, it's as much about a future in which "cyborgs" have taken over the world and are now in control of the remains of human society, which, it seems, has turned out to be too unruly and inefficient to be allowed to continue. As we watch the cyborgs and humans interact, we only gradually discover the same ambiguity about authority and power: who is in charge here, after all? Who's in favour of order and regimentation, and who's supporting imagination and flair? Shouldn't it be the humans rather than the cyborg? Well, no, the play surprises us again; it's not what we'd expect. Perhaps, the script seems to be suggesting, cyborgs can be more adventurous, imaginative, and spontaneous than humans. And maybe it's a matter of language.

In a way, the central figure of Traces is the cyborg (named Evangeline, appropriately enough) who is brought in to translate the dialect spoken in the video clips the human is studying for evidence of a crime. She has more life than the ones who speak "dictionary French" -- at least Terry Drisdelle, who plays with compelling vivacity, does nothing to dispel this impression. Whether the shifts from standard French to the "Sheac," the creole which has arisen in the French-English Acadian community around Moncton, actually work in an English play isn't so clear. One kept wondering whether something like a shift from standard English to an offshoot like the creoles of Jamaica or the Australian bush might work better.  Of course, then the whole location of the play would have to be shifted, and it would become something entirely new, not a translation.  What we need, and what to some extent we get, though probably a good deal less than in Bossé's original, is the sense that somehow it's the vibrancy of the language itself which gives Evangeline the imagination and initiative to help the human escape his captivity -- escaping, in an interesting theatrical device, directly on the footsteps of the australopithecines we began with.

What's clear -- if little else is -- is that this play has no dearth of themes, or of clever staging ideas. We watch the cyborg and the human "detective" (or perhaps he's a slave) watching scenes dramatized by two other actors, and occasionally interrupted by a supervisory cyborg who is worried, with cause, that Evangeline is far too sympathetic to the ignorant human being she's supposed to be translating for. As part of the "back story," we discover there is a tale about Deep Blue II (the computer that defeated grand master Gary Kasparov) having run amuck, having been converted into a sort of mobile land mine and then escaped to lead a hostile takeover of the planet by cyborgs. What does all this have to do with australopithecine footprints (the "traces" of the English title)? If it's all still unclear as the lights go down, the fascination of the process remains. It's not often that a play which is pretty much incomprehensible is at the same time so delightful and engaging to watch.

In part this is a function of the workshop staging. The actors shifting between characters (and genders), the arbitrary way decisions are made about what will be staged and what simply read, all seem appropriate to the unrealistic, explicitly staged nature of the script itself.

What will happen as Nichols and his company continue working on this play is difficult to imagine, but I hope I'll have a chance to see it.

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