Written by Jonathan Garfinkel and Christopher Morris
Directed by Christopher Morris
Starring Samiya Mumtaz, Esther Purves-Smith
Written by Darrah Teitel
Directed by Kate Newby
Starring Jamie Konchak and David Patrick Flemming
Two and a half stars
At the Enbridge playRites Festival of new Canadian Plays
At Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary
How do you write a great play? Do you sit in a room with your imagination, or roam the world to find a story? Will it come out in a short, intense burst of creativity, or should you workshop it over many years, on stage and off?
There are no absolute answers, of course, but two shows premiering at the Enbridge playRites Festival show how sometimes more can actually lead to less.
Dust, created by Jonathan Garfinkel and Christopher Morris, is a project of the theatre company Human Cargo themed around the war in Afghanistan. The script is based on interviews conducted with military families in Petawawa, Ont., and Taliban widows in Swat, Pakistan.
The long process of development has led to this: three intense stories crammed into a mere 90 minutes.
In the first section of the show, the life of a troubled, young Pakistani boy, depicted only (and awkwardly) by a shaft of light, is shown through the eyes of the women and men and who shape him: the mother who tries to keep him away from the Taliban, the army captain who captures him after a failed suicide bombing, and the child psychologist who attempts to rehabilitate him.
In the second part, an Afghani television actress (Deena Aziz) moves to Toronto after her husband is shot when he refuses to interfere with her career. In the final chapter, a Canadian military wife (Erin MacKinnon) deals with the absence of her husband serving overseas.
All three sections of Dust are written in short, staccato scenes that come and go in a frenzy and are mixed together not-so-seamlessly with more serene, wordless movement-based moments.
The most effective story is the middle one. Aziz gives a strong, moving performance as a widow eaten away by guilt and terrified that she will be next on the Taliban hit list, while Esther Purves-Smith gives an even stronger one as her sullen son. Here, Morris crafts his best visual images – the ghost of the dead husband emerging from a pile of sand, or the son trudging through it with his mother on his back.
Dust's first chapter, however, is over by the time you've figured out how to watch it, and the final one feels like the outline of a longer play. In many cases, the writing or the images fail – the cast doubling is confusing and a scene featuring nudity is distracting, while a couple of violent and profane monologues shock without illuminating because they happen so haphazardly.
In essence, Dust tries to do too much in too short a time – the impression left is that Morris tried to craft a long, Robert Lepage-style international epic, but on a small, indie theatre company's budget. No shame in aiming high and falling, but production, ultimately, trumps process despite fashionable ideas in theatre circles.
If Dust is too short, Darrah Teitel's The Apology has become too long. Teitel's play, which premiered as a one-act at Toronto's Next Stage Festival two years ago, depicts the sexual misadventures of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Jamie Konchak) – who would later become author Mary Shelley – with her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley (David Patrick Flemming), stepsister Claire (Ava Jane Markus) and Lord Byron (David Beazely).
Holed up in Byron's castle in Switzerland, the quartet experiment with drugs and free love, while Mary pens Frankenstein. Are they political radicals ahead of their times, or monsters of their own creation?
In a play that is both heady and sexy, as well as full of gleeful anachronisms, Teitel answers that question too quickly – in a prologue, in fact. And once the characters become monsters, there's little for them to do but be monstrous over and over to diminishing effect.
The newly added second act is an unsuccessful attempt to remedy that. Here, the Shelleys have jumped forward to our era – a time-travelling trick practised most famously by Caryl Churchill in her play Cloud 9. Glimmers of hope for redemption appear in a time where polyamory and sex columnist Dan Savage's concept of "monogamish" are common currency. And yet, dead children and lovers don't simply disappear.
Kate Newby directs the production with brio – and the young cast are all, to use another Savage coinage, GGG: good, giving and game. At its best, the show is like a Bret Easton Ellis novel adapted for the stage by Bernard Shaw. But you can tell that Teitel's thinking has moved on: Now, The Apology feels like a play followed by an apology for it.