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GiveLife.ca

    

Bereav'd of Light
By Ian Ross
Directed by Dean Gabourie


Play summary | Globe and Mail review


From the program:

With the help of an Ojibway warrior, an escaped slave from the American South flees to freedom in this fascinating exploration of a little-known aspect of 18th-century history: the interaction between North America's Aboriginal and African-Canadian communities.



The Globe and Mail's review:

Double bill a mismatched pair
space
By KATE TAYLOR
Thursday, August 8, 2002 Print Edition, Page R2

The Fellini Radio Plays

Translated and adapted

by Damiano Pietropaolo

Directed by Idalberto Fei

Starring Eric Peterson, Luba Goy

and Steve Cumyn

Rating: ***

Bereav'd of Light

Written by Ian Ross

Directed by Dean Gabourie

Starring Derwin Jordan'

and Gregory Dominic Odjig

Rating: **

A double bill in Studio Theatre at the Stratford Festival

In his youth, before he became a mighty filmmaker, Federico Fellini wrote small dramas for Italian radio. Who knew?

Not many, since his short scripts from the 1940s were lost and only rediscovered in 1998, whereupon the Italian writer and director Idalberto Fei produced several of them for the national broadcaster RAI. They have since been heard on other European radio networks. Now, Fei brings the plays to the theatrical stage at Stratford's new Studio Theatre with an English translation courtesy of Damiano Pietropaolo who, not coincidentally, also produces radio drama for the CBC in his role as head of arts programming.

The plays are whimsical things, charming in spots, corny in others, which Fei does a pretty if not entirely smooth job of turning into theatre. The first piece is a small gag: A tramp talks a young man out of his cigarettes, his cigarette case and finally his suit. With an exuberant Steven Cumyn as the con artist and a comically flabbergasted Andrew Strachan as his victim, the piece is easy fun that's easily dismissed.

The second play revolves around a dreamily symbolic story in which a pair of illiterate lovers, separated when the young man goes to the city for work, exchange daily letters containing nothing but blank sheets of paper. The story itself is a gem, but it would need subtler work from Tracy Michailidis as the woman and Strachan as the man for its power to take hold: In particular, he can't give sufficient emotional weight to the sadly ironic conclusion.

The final play is the centrepiece of this show, and it explains why Eric Peterson has been hovering about the action as some kind of narrator or host. Now he is the larger-than-life director in a radio studio stuffed with microphones, fake doors and a wind machine: The cast and crew of Special Broadcast No. 7 are getting to work. The director and his pair of announcers -- Luba Goy is the aging prima donna, Michailidis is the sexy young talent -- read out letters from listeners demanding everything from a conversation between fish to an explanation of the monologue delivered by the clacking train wheels.

The device of the audience's letters is wearing thin before the little play is over, but its aural games are charming, and Peterson's highly amusing work as the overacting director anchors the piece. Here, Fei's idea of giving the Fellini radio plays physical life as theatre belatedly takes hold as he successfully transports the equipment of sound-making into the world of the sight gag.

Very oddly, as Stratford continues here with the double bills of one-act plays that are launching the new studio, the festival has paired these little theatrical bonbons with Bereav'd of Light, a new script from Ian Ross, the native playwright best known for the Governor-General's Award-winning fareWel. It would be hard to imagine a more mismatched pair than Fei's offering of surreal Italian whimsy and the earnest drama of New World revisionism that opens the program. Ross's play sets out to investigate an unrecorded chapter of North American history: the encounter between black slaves and aboriginal peoples. What he has produced, however, is a plantation melodrama with a noble brave cast as deus ex machina.

The white master (Leon Pownall) and his slave Samuel (Seun Olagunju) are pursuing the escaped slave Absalom (Derwin Jordan) through the forest. Absalom is the master's favourite, kept as a servant in the house rather than a worker in the fields, but he has committed the unpardonable offence of learning to read. In the forest, he meets Wagoosh (Gregory Dominic Odjig), an Indian on a vision quest to liberate the soul of his brother, who has died of the white man's drink. After some initial confusion and amazement -- Wagoosh conveniently speaks English, learned when he was kidnapped by Europeans -- the two form a bond of brotherhood that lets them face down Absalom's pursuers.

Of course, these characters have a wholly anachronistic consciousness of the oppression of their two peoples, but such a state would be perfectly permissible in the world of theatre if Ross could find some dramatic language that would give it a convincing voice. That was the secret to the success of Florence Gibson's lyrical Belle, a recent Canadian script that dealt with a similar encounter between a suffragette and the children of slaves in Reconstruction-era America. But here, Ross lurches about, grasping occasionally at poetry that might match his lengthy quotations from William Blake, but mainly producing lines that sound painfully flat and self-conscious.

Director Dean Gabourie and his cast attempt to inflate the script to the size it would have to be were it to successfully address its themes, but they too are erratic in their achievements.

As Pownall lusciously recites Blake or Odjig and Jordan reveal their characters' energetic humanity, one gets glimpses of plausibly heroic figures but just as often, without language rich enough to turn the brusque revelations of the plot from melodrama to tragedy, they only look silly.

The play's drama feels phony and its chief revelation -- we are all human -- is facile.

The double bill in Studio Theatre at the Stratford Festival runs to Aug. 25. 1-800-567-1600.

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