Yukonstyle is precisely what those with a personal or professional interest in new stage writing like to see – a script that’s a big step forward for a young playwright in a production that does her words full justice.
Sarah Berthiaume’s latest play is set in Whitehorse during the trial of serial killer Robert Pickton. The non-stop, stomach-turning television coverage of the pig farmer’s unspeakable acts seems to have seeped its way the consciousness of each of the characters and altered how they see day-to-day life in the dark winter of Canada’s North.
Garin (Ryan Cunningham), a young aboriginal man working as a dishwasher, begins to wonder if the disappearance of his own mother from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside when he was a toddler is somehow connected to Pickton. Unsettled, he tries to get his alcoholic, French-Canadian father Pops (the charming François Klanfer) to finally tell him about his family history.
Meanwhile, Garin’s roommate Yuko (Grace Lynn Kung), an immigrant from Japan who moved to the Yukon because she read it had the fewest Japanese people in the world, is also reminded of a family tragedy by the news, but her reaction is to pick up an underdressed young, white woman she discovers hitchhiking on the side of the road and tell her she can stay on their couch as long as she likes. Kate (Kate Corbett), who turns out to be 17, pregnant and obnoxiously ignorant, causes friction between Yuko and Garin just when they need each other most.
Since Yukonstyle had its premiere in Quebec last April at Montreal’s Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui, it’s racked up performances in France, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria and Germany. It is much more appealing than Berthiaume’s first play, The Flood Thereafter, which was presented in English translation at Canadian Stage earlier this fall and, trying too hard to be mythologically resonant, drowned in static poetry.
In Yukonstyle, Berthiaume strikes a balance between short, sharp scenes of conflict between the characters and poetically descriptive monologues, which are delivered by the three main young actors through head-mounted microphones. Director Ted Witzel provides visuals that complement these passages rather than trying to literally illustrate them.
The nicely layered staging by Witzel – one of two inaugural graduates of York University’s new MFA program in collaboration with Canadian Stage – is a leap forward for him as well. A scene where Kate eats Cheez Whiz with her finger out of a jar while watching a gruesome news report on television is brilliantly disgusting, while a yearning encounter between Yuko and Garin has all the will-they, won’t-they tension of a DVD box set of Friends compressed into a few minutes.
The performances are a tad broad, but remain believable. As Kate, Corbett gives a bravely immature performance, never trying at all to gain our sympathy for her unthinking character. At first, I thought she was simply too much – but after a commute home in which I ran into a gaggle of screeching teenage girls, I realized that she has captured through caricature the unflappable obliviousness of youth. It’s quite refreshing to see a teen on stage who isn’t precocious or wise beyond her years. (Kate has an arm in a sling that I might have seen a symbol of her own brokenness – if I hadn’t been told that the actress had an accident during rehearsals.)
As far as the writing goes, it’s a pleasure to find a non-Aboriginal Canadian playwright creating a work with a compelling native character at its centre (well played by Cunningham) who is neither a victim, nor overly virtuous. In many accounts of our country’s theatre history, the first significant event in English Canadian playwriting was The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, George Ryga’s 1967 tragedy about a young Aboriginal woman who moves to the city. But with the rise of native playwrights like Tomson Highway in the 1980s, other Canadian playwrights mostly ceded the territory to those who had long been denied a voice. The well-meaning attempt to avoid cultural appropriation has often had the unexpected side effect of whitewashing our stages – and sidelining issues that are all of ours to deal with.
In any case, although rooted in a recent Canadian tragedy, Yukonstyle is not overwhelmed by it – or sucked into docudrama. The relationships are complex, the characters fresh and there a few gutsy moments – like I said, exactly what you want from a 30-year-old playwright who has more working years ahead of her than behind her.