NS reviews

Reviews of theatre and art in Nova Scotia and beyond

Shivers, rebellion and revenge in thrilling outdoor theatre at Ross Creek


Frankenstein by Fire, by Allen Cole and Ken Schwartz, stars, from left, Jim Fowler, Chris O’Neill, Geneviève Steele, Mary Fay Coady, Devin MacKinnon, Jeff Schwager, Hilary Adams, Burgandy Code and Ryan Rogerson. The Two Planks and a Passion Theatre production is at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts to Aug. 17 at 9 p.m. with In This Light at 6 p.m.  (Macky Schwartz) 

Cold fog swirled in and rain fell just as Burgandy Code’s idealistic Dr. Thomasina Burke praised the light in the sky.

Everyone laughed but no one moved until In This Light came to its stirring conclusion.

Two Planks and a Passion Theatre has created magic again in two intense, thrillingly dramatic stories that are multi-faceted gems of theatrical art told outdoors in a glorious natural environment at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts just over the North Mountain in the Annapolis Valley.

You can’t get a better off-the-beaten-path, theatrical experience.

In This Light, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 An Enemy of the People by Governor-General’s award-winning playwright Catherine Banks, at 6 p.m., is a 90-minute thunderbolt of a play about speaking truth to power in the 1930s in the Annapolis Valley – but it could as easily be 2019 in Canada or the U.S.  People who loved the 2017 suffragist musical Nothing Less! will enjoy In The Light, though it’s darker.

Frankenstein by Fire is a chilly tale told around a blazing fire with a remarkable score by Allen Cole, excellent singing, animated performances and great movement with extraordinary gothic costumes by Jennifer Goodman that would fit well in any Vampire movie.

Written by director Ken Schwartz based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 original, this Frankenstein is far from the movie versions. It is a stark vision of broken hearts and ambiguous morality and, like any good, campfire ghost story, full of bursts of noise and creepy movements in the shadows.

(To be honest, I saw the indoor version due to rain and can only imagine how extra spooky and illuminated it would be outdoors.)

The two shows, which can be seen separately or as a double bill, share ideas of the outcast, of a family under threat and of a belief in science to change the world for the better. They hold a fear as palpable as the ghostly embrace of fog on Saturday’s stormy opening night.

In This Light is set in a grassy area next to a large pond, which becomes the polluted waters that threaten the viability of a town’s healing baths, which are supposed to be its economic salvation.

Banks changes Ibsen’s protagonist from Dr. Thomas Stockmann to Dr. Thomasina Burke giving the story an excellent feminist torque in keeping with our time and Ibsen’s character as an early feminist.

Dr. Burke – brought to life in an electrifying, impassioned performance by Burgandy Code – discovers the supposedly healing waters are poisoned by her adopted father’s tannery.

Encouraged by the female newspaper editor Mrs. Whitman (Chris O’Neill) and her family, she rushes forward to tell the truth to the mayor, the working people building the project for stock instead of cash and the baths’ owners.

This is the timeless story of a community run by a powerful cartel of men who close ranks and take advantage of a fearful citizenry to reject an uncomfortable and unprofitable truth.

Dr. Burke could be today’s 16-year-old, climate crisis activist Greta Thunberg or American humanitarian Scott Warren, arrested and charged for giving food and water to migrants. The surprising arrest this May of John Perkins, of Sustainable Northern Nova Scotia, at a public Atlantic Gold meeting also comes to mind.

Jeff Schwager plays the cold, calculating mayor – also Dr. Burke’s brother-in-law – in such a crisp, conniving, hard-edged way that you want to strangle him by the end of the play. He’s as irritating and all-powerful and unstoppable as Donald Trump.

The cast, dressed in Jennifer Goodman’s effective period costumes, is super solid with Matthew Lumley, calmly loving as Dr. Burke’s war-injured husband; Mary Fay Coady in a gleaming, intense performance as Dr. Burke’s idealistic teacher-daughter in love with journalist Harry Beals (Devin MacKinnon), Ryan Rogerson as the robust, gruff tannery owner; Hilary Adams as Camilla Beals, a young woman who has had to leave school to work; Jim Fowler, particularly present and sympathetic as Camilla’s working-class father; and Geneviève Steele in a delightfully strident performance as the obsequious, cowardly printer Jack Johnson.

Ken Schwartz directs In This Light, punctuated by Mary Fay Coady’s fiddle, for a fantastic thematic and practical use of the outdoors – an environment of luxurious greens, songbirds, muskrat and the ever-changing  Bay of Fundy light.

Banks, who gives a talkback on July 17, dedicates the play “to every woman with her hair on fire who is told she doesn’t understand the situation.”

Frankenstein by Fire:

Mary Shelley’s Romantic era was one of much death and grief as well as high drama. Her mother – the brilliant feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft– died shortly after giving birth to her. Mary lost many children to miscarriage.

She wrote Frankenstein when she was 18 in a ghost story challenge during a dreary wet summer in a Swiss lakeside villa amongst herself, her husband — the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley — and their friends, Lord Byron and John Polidori, who wrote The Vampyre.

Two Planks’ artistic director Schwartz adheres closely to Shelley’s original tale of a scientist who creates an intelligent, eight-foot-tall being so desperately lonely and aggrieved he goes on a manipulative, murderous streak to strike at his creator, Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

The gloom of grief and death hangs heavily over this production in the darkness beyond the fire and in the black clothing. The way the dead mother (Chris O’Neill) departs and returns when others die is very well done.

Mary Fay Coady is wonderfully alive, confident and radiant as Victor’s intended bride Elizabeth, who stays in the Frankenstein’s house while Victor studies science for two years and creates his monster.

Matthew Lumley, standing tall in a huge cloak with a fur-lined hood, is emotive in the monster’s cri de coeur but also monstrous in his actions and when his face is revealed. (I had trouble hearing the monster and Victor when their backs were to me, but I believe the blocking would work better outdoors.)

Ryan Rogerson is the sea captain stuck in Arctic ice urging out Victor’s tale, while Devin MacKinnon plays a good, tormented Victor, overly zealous in his pursuit of science to the exclusion of the needs and wants of other human beings. Also in the cast are Hilary Adams, vivid and sparkling as the family’s helper Justine; Burgandy Code and Geneviève Steele, both excellently childlike as Victor’s young brothers, and Jeff Schwager as Victor’s lively friend Henry.

The story, told in rapid movement and freeze-frame motion, arcs from a merry childhood of theatrical play towards ever more darkness, death and destruction. Allen Cole’s varied and complex music stokes up the atmosphere. It ranges from a gentle childhood lullaby to a wonderful love song to primal beats of plastic tubes for propulsive, fearful storytelling.

The question at the end is, Who is the real monster?

Tickets, as well as the schedule and information about the Halifax shuttle, are online (http://www.artscentre.ca/twoplanks.html). Both shows run to Aug. 17. Halifax playwright Gillian Clark’s new dark comedy, The Ruins by Fire, inspired by The Trojan Women by Euripides, premieres Aug. 23, while the Mi’kmaw play Elapultiek, by Bear River playwright and storyteller shalan joudry, is on tour September and November and at Ross Creek Sept. 28 and 29. Other talkbacks are: July 24, Acadia professor Jon Saklofske speaking on the work of Mary Shelley; Aug. 7, Dalhousie professor Roberta Barker. speaking on Henrik Ibsen.


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