For years, Eric Peterson played a lovably cranky old coot on the Saskatchewan-set sitcom Corner Gas. Now the veteran actor is back in the Land of Living Skies and mad as hell again, only this time it's not funny.
In Annabel Soutar's play Seeds, Peterson stars as Percy Schmeiser, the hard-nosed Saskatchewan farmer who took on the agrichemical giant Monsanto in the 1990s after they accused him of illegally growing their genetically modified canola. During his long court battle, Schmeiser became an international spokesman for farmers' rights and a little-guy hero to opponents of genetic engineering. But this work of documentary theatre, co-produced by Toronto's Crow's Theatre and Montreal's Porte Parole, is no simple David and Goliath story.
Soutar – who first presented this play in 2005 with her Porte Parole company – has the tenacious instincts of an investigative journalist who is more interested in the truth than in advocacy. As a result, Seeds is dense with facts and arguments, rigorous in its presentation of every angle – and ultimately an overlong and unwieldy piece of theatre. Clocking in at close to three hours (with an intermission), it finally exhausts both the audience and, seemingly, director Chris Abraham, whose busy multimedia staging flags in imagination before the end.
Still, you have to applaud Soutar for not taking the easy documentary route paved by filmmaker Michael Moore – fudging facts and pulling heartstrings to get a desired response. You also have to put your mitts together for Peterson and his six multi-role-playing co-stars, whose performances are not just tireless but invigorating. They never fail to give vivid human faces and voices to the mass of interviews and court transcripts which make up Soutar's text.
Soutar herself appears, portrayed by Liisa Repo-Martell, as a pregnant young Montreal playwright who guides us through Schmeiser's saga. We follow her west, as she interviews the man and his cheery wife Louise (Tanja Jacobs) on their farm near Bruno, Sask. To hear the other side, she also speaks with Trish Jordan (Cary Lawrence), Monsanto's brittle spokeswoman. Jordan vehemently maintains the company line that Schmeiser illegally obtained its herbicide-resistant canola seeds. Schmeiser argues that the seeds blew onto his field, but his real fight is with the notion that Monsanto can own the patent to a gene. Repo-Martell's playwright-cum-reporter, her trusty tape recorder in hand, gathers opposing viewpoints from scientists, lawyers, academics and advocacy groups.
The first act centres on the Monsanto versus Schmeiser case. Despite Soutar's attempt at even-handedness, Monsanto comes off as the baddie. Its slick lawyer, Roger Hughes (Jacobs), hammers at Peterson's slightly befuddled Schmeiser in court, while a picture emerges of a corrupt corporation that has not just Canadian farmers, but the federal government, in its pocket. Everyone on the biotech side seems snide and superior, while Schmeiser and his disabled lawyer Terry Zakreski (Alex Ivanovici) are the sympathetic underdogs.
Act 2, however, brings a twist when the playwright belatedly interviews Schmeiser's neighbours and suddenly the man is cast in a less flattering light. There's even a mystery subplot, as she gets a lead on a farmer who allegedly sold Schmeiser those disputed Monsanto seeds. At the same time, her quest to find hard evidence that GM food is harmful leads her into the murky uncertainties behind the workings of DNA. The play spins out into larger questions about scientific theory, the role of the corporate Goliath in society and even what constitutes life.
Abraham navigates this ocean of material with a combination of theatrical and documentary-film techniques. The stage of the Young Centre's Michael Young Theatre has been opened up to accommodate a screen wide enough for a prairie vista. There are two onstage cameras for live video as well as images and titles designed by Elysha Poirier. On Julie Fox's cell-like set, the Schmeiser farmhouse is a cozy nucleus circled by sterile laboratories. The actors mime some scenes and use comic props in others. At times, the visual diversions are a bit annoying, distracting us from taking in the all-important words.
More subtle is the gender-blind casting, which doesn't call undue attention to itself. Mariah Inger is particularly effective as various gruff rural males. Peterson, meanwhile, is note-perfect as the folksy but keenly intelligent Schmeiser, His climactic Sierra Club speech on behalf of farmers is a thing of homespun eloquence, made the more stirring by Richard Feren's rousing score.
By then, however, Soutar has done such a good job sowing the seeds of doubt that you wonder if this is nothing more than passionate rhetoric. Her play gives us plenty to think about, but leaves us to make up our own minds.
Seeds runs until March 10.
Special to The Globe and Mail
- Written by Annabel Soutar
- Directed by Chris Abraham
- Starring Eric Peterson, Bruce Dinsmore, Mariah Inger, Alex Ivanovici, Tanja Jacobs, Cary Lawrence and Liisa Repo-Martell
- At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto
- 3 stars