The Rochdale Project
Written by the collective
with Simon Heath
Directed by Simon Heath
Starring Melissa Good, Jamie
Robinson, Greg Thomas
At Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto
No other theatre in Toronto is as fond of paying homage to itself as Theatre Passe Muraille. In 1999, it staged Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy, inspired by its production of The Farm Show, one of its early forays into collective creation. In 2002, it unveiled In the Wings, an adaptation of a novel that in turn documented a fabled 1983 Passe Muraille staging of Hamlet. In between, it mounted enough sequels and re-visitations of its glory days in the seventies to warrant its nickname: Past Muraille.
The Rochdale Project, a collective creation co-written and directed by Simon Heath, technically belongs to the same self-mythologizing vein. This modern-history play is inspired by a chapter in the life of Toronto's counterculture movement: not the ubiquitous Yorkville but the nearly forgotten Rochdale College, an alternative educational and housing co-operative in Toronto's Annex district between 1968 and 1975. The roots of Theatre Passe Muraille, as well as other cultural institutions, can be traced to those free-spirited sixties' youth who dared challenge orthodox thinking on almost everything, from education to cohabitation to, of course, drugs.
Heath and a group of six young actors got together in 2002 to explore both Rochdale's history and Passe Muraille's collective-creation roots. The result is two historically significant movements and one mediocre show. I can't emphasize the word historically enough because, despite the company's stated goal to create a show "as much about us as about the people of Rochdale," what played out onstage on Thursday's opening night was an earnest reconstruction of past events without any insight into the past, present or future. It was a trip back into time and space that only proved vigorous in wasting both.
In response to the September, 2001, terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq, there have been no end of attempts to use the spirit of the sixties as a touchstone for our (well, the American, really) political and military predicaments. In this instance, the cast has isolated a historical moment but failed to tell us why. Without that explanation, The Rochdale Project is yet another exercise in nostalgia, not unlike those Time Life infomercials that promise definitive compilations of sixties or seventies music. There's too much emphasis here on capturing period mood, lingo and sentiments -- and to tell the story of Rochdale in a factual manner -- to leave much room for the art of theatre.
In other words, this is a good story that hasn't been told well. Of the six characters onstage, only one has any kind of emotionally believable trajectory: Ruth (Melisa Good in an anchoring performance), the Mennonite runaway who finds a new faith in the ideals of Rochdale. Her story is the only thread here that seems to have been plausibly developed, or merits curiosity. The other five are a sample representation of Rochdale that suggests a stoned-out-of-its-brains focus group. There's the Earth Mother Angel (Aviva Armour-Ostroff) and the drug-dealing Daddio (Jamie Robinson), for example, whose lives don't seem to justify as much as an explanation of how or why they're there.
What makes the production frustrating is how close it comes to identifying grand themes and how far it strays from actually dramatizing them. How Rochdale imploded from debt, violence and selfishness -- how an ideal was destroyed but its own authors -- is what makes the story fascinating. But Heath and company prefer instead to narrate the downfall or use projected press clippings as running commentary. There's no real drama to speak of, let alone act out. There are some energetic performances here, but energy alone can't give life to dead-on-arrival theatre.
Ultimately, the production doesn't add much more to our understanding of Rochdale than any of the numerous articles included in the press kit or others that are one Google search away. In that, it seems typical of the treacherous road that is collective theatre, a style that often puts the priorities of the creative process above all other considerations, including the audience's right to be treated as intelligent co-owners of the story.
The Rochdale Project continues at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille until March 19 (416-504-7529).