It would be hard enough for any investigative journalist to chase a story about the closing of a major, federally funded freshwater research station in which the government refused to comment. But imagine chasing it while riding across the country in a Winnebago motorhome with your actor husband, two giddy prepubescent girls and an unruly dog.
That real-life situation, delightfully dramatized in Annabel Soutar’s Panamania play The Watershed, brings chaotic comic levity to what is essentially a dead-serious work of documentary theatre: a show that sees Canada at a watershed moment in its pursuit of both economic prosperity and ecological sustainability.
Montreal playwright Soutar is the journalist in question – her chosen medium is theatre – and that Winnebago scenario grew out of her desire to involve the next generation in her assignment. Commissioned by Panamania, the Pan Am Games’s arts and culture festival, to create a play about water as a natural resource, she enlisted her own daughters as her research assistants. Never mind that they weren’t too sure what a “watershed” is, sometimes confused Stephen Harper with Rob Ford and would rather be watching Frozen than discussing tailings ponds. They learned a lot along the way. And we do, too.
Like Seeds, Soutar’s previous documentary about genetically modified crops, The Watershed is a solid piece of reporting. But where that play sometimes overwhelmed us with facts and arguments, this one keeps our attention with splashes of satire, a steady stream of domestic comedy and a playful sprinkling of meta-theatrical jokes. And it once again taps into the considerable resources of director Chris Abraham and his creative team, who have crafted a fast-flowing, continually inventive production. (As in the case of Seeds, Abraham’s Toronto-based Crow’s Theatre and Soutar’s Montreal company, Porte Parole, are the show’s co-producers.)
The Watershed begins, appropriately enough, with Annabel (played by Kristen Thomson) and husband Alex Ivanovici (playing himself) using a home plumbing crisis to teach daughters Ella (Amelia Sargisson) and Beatrice (Ngozi Paul) about water loss. Soon the girls are both helping and hindering their mom as she looks into the shutting down of the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario’s Kenora District after its budget was slashed in 2012 by the feds.
Annabel finds a passionate defender of the ELA in young scientist Diane Orihel (also portrayed by Sargisson). But she can’t get anyone in the government to talk. Trying to understand both sides of the situation, she finally turns to her conservative father (Eric Peterson), who obliges with a sympathetic take on Stephen Harper’s economic motives.
Ultimately, Annabel decides she needs to see the bigger picture – notably, the water-polluting oil sands in northern Alberta – so she convinces her theatre board to triple her travel budget, pulls the kids out of school and heads west in that Winnebago. The bumpy road trip to Fort McMurray forms the backbone of the play’s second act.
In the three years since we saw Seeds, Abraham has directed some outstanding Shakespeare productions at the Stratford Festival and it shows here. The Watershed is almost Shakespearean in length (close to three hours with an intermission) and sweeps us up in a hurly-burly staging with a protean cast of eight that feels like a cast of 18.
He also brings out the best in all concerned. Peterson is a joy, whether spoofing the histrionics of a Fox News anchor or quietly articulating the argument for capitalism as Annabel’s father. Tanja Jacobs swings easily from that left-wing firebrand Maude Barlow to little, saucer-eyed Hazel, Abraham’s daughter, who tags along on the cross-country trip. A smooth Bruce Dinsmore does wry turns as a Beatles-crooning Harper and a chocolate-voiced Jian Ghomeshi (appearing here pre-scandal, as the host of CBC Radio’s Q). Tara Nicodemo is an elegant presence in various roles, including Guy Laliberté’s partner Claudia Barilla of the One Drop Foundation.
Ivanovici as Ivanovici has one of the show’s funniest interludes, trying to urinate in the bathroom of the moving Winnebago. As Ella and Beatrice, a charmingly rambunctious Sargisson and Paul make us forget they’re adults playing little girls, while Paul also does a wicked impersonation of director Abraham, complete with fake beard. Soutar doesn’t spare anyone in this play, least of all herself. Thomson’s relatable Annabel can be over-earnest and cranky and, at one hilarious low point, ends up scrounging desperately for some discarded strips of bacon, only to be beaten to it by the family dog.
Julie Fox’s set, dotted with bathroom fixtures, Kimberly Purtell’s aquatic lighting and Thomas Ryder Payne’s dripping-faucet sound design all accentuate the show’s water theme. But this is not just a play about the source of life, but also about how we live today. In an election year, it asks us to resist our ideological impulses, start listening to one another and have some long, hard conversations about what kind of country we want our kids to inherit.
The Watershed continues to July 19 as part of the Panamania arts and culture festival (www.toronto2015.org/panamania).Report Typo/Error
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