On Viewing the International Space Station

When I was about ten years old I climbed with my family to the roof of our house in Windsor Ontario one summer evening to watch the little light called Skylab sail silently across the dusky sky. Memory is a funny thing. I remember Skylab flying from East to West, but I know that its actual path was necessarily from West to East. However distorted, that childhood memory of Skylab’s passage has stayed with me these forty years. I had seen a space station!

Fifteen or twenty years ago, one early Edmonton morning I looked up and saw a dim light I knew to be one of the Space Shuttles pass overhead, just after re-entry. A few minutes later, I saw the same shuttle on live television landing in Florida. The memory of that strange moment, seeing on television as one of an audience of millions the science fiction machine to which I had just been solitary witness — that memory has also remained clear for me.

The other night at 10:17 my neighbour in his bathrobe came out to our back alley. I felt a bit of a Ford Prefect/Arthur Dent moment but resisted the urge to mention the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. My neighbour brought two of his teenage children along and we watched with happy hoots as the International Space Station came into view in the West. It was brilliantly bright! After a moment, Céline yelled out “there’s the other one!” I had briefed the kids earlier in the day that the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vessel Georges Lemaître would be flying in formation with the Space Station, station keeping before docking the next day. I hadn’t expected Georges Lemaître to be so far behind and so clearly visible. It was as though the ATV trailed on an invisible thread, like a space launch towed behind a sky-yacht or a crystalline caboose on a marvellous celestial train.

I saw Skylab as a boy because my father had noticed the time of its passage in a newspaper. I saw the shuttle because I knew it was returning to earth that morning and looked up hopefully and got lucky. Now, in the Future, once or twice a day my phone clangs with a notification from NASA telling me when the ISS will be visible from Edmonton, where on the horizon it will appear and disappear, how long it will be visible and how high in the sky it will be. On my phone!

I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: whatever stupid, cruel, barbaric, inhuman evils or simply foibles we humans get up to, we live in a world where Science Fiction truly has become Science Fact. When I ride Edmonton’s LRT from the south toward Southgate Station, see Hugh Ferriss’ heroic Architecture of Power in the Metropolis of Tomorrow, a Garden City in forest and parkland. When I look up at night I see the World’s shared Space Station chased by a friendly European robot. I look around on the street or the train and see people talking through colourful strings in their ears to friends half a world away. And each of us has all of human knowledge on little computers in our pockets.

” O brave new world,. That has such people in ‘t!”

A Few Thoughts on Edmonton’s “Galleria” Project

The people behind the proposed glitzy new Downtown Edmonton theatre complex/University campus/outdoor roofed-over thingy have started asking for input from the arts community and the public, apparently wanting to tweak the plans to increase the less than 50% of Edmontonians on board with the thing.

I love Edmonton and I love the Arts in Edmonton. I love Downtown. I confess, however, that I thought it was a little laughably artificial when the “Arts District” signs went up around Churchill Square a number of years ago when the area’s Arts items amounted to the Citadel Theatre, the Edmonton Art Gallery, and a few pieces of public art. Meanwhile, Old Strathcona had art galleries and theatres and music venues around every corner. Art Galleries also lined the west end of Jasper Avenue and north along 124 Street to live theatre at the Roxy. And the University of Alberta Campus had galleries, concert halls, and theatres. And . . .

Then the Winspear Concert Hall opened between the Citadel and the new Art Gallery of Alberta. And 118 Avenue picked up and a cultural hub and festival centre, in large part due to the efforts the good people of the Carrot. And the Freewill Players continued doing Shakespeare down in the River Valley rain or shine. And Expressionz Cafe opened on 99th Street and now is in danger of closing due to zoning issues. And St. Albert’s Arden Theatre and that city’s Art Gallery, and the Spruce Grove Art Gallery, and the Stony Plain Gallery up on the hill, and Sherwood Park’s Festival Place and Gallery@501. And . . . .

So, the “Arts District” has a theatre, a concert hall and an art gallery. There are a number of neighbourhoods in the city with more claim to the title “Arts District” than Downtown, even after the Galleria gets built. Old Strathcona, home of the Fringe Festival, is the most obvious choice, but personally I don’t think such a choice should be made. Greater Edmonton is Edmonton’s Arts District and that should be the guiding principal of support for the Arts.

And so, how would I tweak the Galleria project to make it work better for Edmonton and Edmonton’s Arts Community?

I wouldn’t build it. I’d build a black box theatre space in Beverly. I’d build a Terwilligar Community Art Space. I’d build a concert hall with a sprung stage for ballet in Mill Woods. I’d build a Jazz club in Belgravia, a Blues joint in Allendale, another art gallery up in Belvedere. . . And more theatre spaces and galleries in more neighbourhoods.

Imagine if there were no Community Rec Centres in Edmonton, only a huge Rec Complex Downtown. Imagine if there were no branch libraries, only a bloated Milner Library on Churchill Square. Does that make sense? Of course not.

I’m not really interested about the funding formulas and Trusts and whatevers about the Galleria. I simply think putting all or even a large number of a city’s artistic eggs in one basket is a mistake.

And, to be honest, the whole Galleria project strikes me as an effort by a few civically insecure individuals to make Edmonton “World Class” and that’s just offensive. A shivering desire to make Edmonton “World Class” is just an annoying way of saying “I don’t like Edmonton, I like Paris or London or Toronto or Portland or Timmins better!”

I like Paris and London and Toronto. I’ve never been to Portland but it sounds nice. I don’t remember Timmins, but I bet it’s got a whole lot of cool to it. I really like Mexico City, too.

But I feel quite happy to say that I like Edmonton a whole lot and I’ve never seen any place I’d rather live. The opportunities for artists are phenomenal, the Arts Community is electric and hugely supportive of each other.  I don’t think there’s a better place to be.  We don’t need to build something to impress the World. We just need to keep doing the great things we do in the great ways we do them.

If the Galleria ever gets built, I expect it’ll be pretty nice and it’ll be pretty great. But it won’t be great because it’s World Class. It’ll be great because the creative hearts of Edmonton will be on those stages and in those seats.

But the stages would better serve the City and it’s creative hearts out in the neighbourhoods rather than stuffed into the absurdly artificial  “Arts District.”

Mack D. Male has a tremendous article on the Galleria called “Want to solve the space problem for the arts in Edmonton? Stop shaving that yak!” Definitely worth a read!

It’s Now or Never: The Freewill Players Hold a Mirror to Modern Society With “The Taming of the Shrew”

Some hastily scrawled thoughts after a Sunday Matinee performance of Shakespeare’s  The Taming of the Shrew by Edmonton’s  Freewill Players.

 

I must start here:

The Taming of the Shrew is a fundamentally misogynistic piece of art.  Even more than the anti-Semitism of The Merchant of Venice, the misogyny of The Taming of the Shrew is woven throughout.  In fact, brutal misogyny is the point of the play – without it, the three female characters and dozen or so male would stand silently on the stage for a few hours.  The Taming of the Shrew is the explicitly approving story of the breaking of a strong woman through violence, starvation and sleep deprivation until she, like a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, in the finale of the play, at the command of her abuser, turns on the two other women and lectures them about how their natural role is to abase themselves to their husbands.  Kate is so destroyed that she happily denies the evidence of her own eyes at the maliciously arbitrary command of her abuser.
Needless to say, The Taming of the Shrew is an uncomfortable and painful comedy for any modern audience member who has ever had a mother.
Now with that – not out of the way – it should never by out of the way – but having been said I am going to argue that the Freewill Players have turned the seriously daunting challenges of a contemporary production of The Taming of the Shrew into powerfully explored opportunities.  And they’ve  done a remarkable job of bringing  Shrew to the emergency indoor stage at the University of Alberta’s Myer Horowitz Theatre.  After a freak windstorm destroyed the canopy of the Heritage Amphitheatre, Freewill had to find a new venue on extremely short notice, at unforeseen cost, and with the forced the reduction of the Festival to a single play.

The Players have cut from Shrew the frame story involving Christopher Sly and replaced it with an hilariously scripted and choreographed  opening of the actors – as themselves  but somehow still in character – preparing the stage and explaining why the’re inside instead of out amongst the squirrels and mosquitos.    This opening was made even more real and surreal for me by the fact that thirty minutes before curtain I stood beside Julien Arnold, the ostensibly always-snacking actor, at the bagel place outside the theatre.  He still had his bike helmet on.  I think he was snacking.

The simple set design by Narda McCarroll of a few movable crates stencilled with the Freewill logo, four aluminium step ladders, a big red door, and a few wall sections,  is marvellously versatile.  The ladders added a reminder that the production had something of the emergency makeshift about it.  But when Arnold as the Merchant of Mantua, is atop one of the ladders in his crazy Garibaldi wig and fake beard, we believe he’s shouting from an upper story window.  And we also believe he’s craving a snack.

The entire cast joins in with the set changes, also providing a bright and cheery “Bumby bum bum” musical accompaniment (Sound Designer Dave Clarke’s work is brilliant) as chairs, ladders, tables and trays of liquor swirl about the stage in a way both magical and do-it-yourself.  The production is full of quiet reminders that this company, cast and crew, has pulled together and risen to the emergency, that they’re all in it together.

James Macdonald gives a relaxed, strong, nuanced performance as Petruchio, the Shrew Tamer.  His Petruchio clearly truly comes to love Kate (Mary Hulbert) even while he continues to “tame” her with what we would call “torture”.  Hulbert is gloriously physical and cerebral as Kate, pummelling all who cross her with fists and wit. Bobbi Goddard as Kate’s sister, Bianca, makes clear that the younger is cut from the same cloth as the older sister, but Bianca is all dishonest sunshine and politeness if a man’s eye is upon her, whereas Kate is always brutally honest.  The various servants and suitors and travellers and fathers, two of whom have almost identical names, two of whom exchange identities (sort of) and two of whom take on false identities are all carefully distinguished and what can be a mess of confusion for the audience is kept crystal clear by the Players.

And the music!  Stand out musical performances come from Mary Hulbert in her opening solo of “O mio babbino caro” and Sheldon Elter’s (Tranio) performance on voice and ukulele leading the entire cast on “It’s Now or Never”.  The music which struck me initially as least successful was Nathan Cuckow (Hortensio) and Bobbi Goddard’s  Hip-Hop rendition of  “Hortensio’s Gamut” (Shakespearean rap?),  but then . . .

(Maybe it’s getting a bad rap, but) Hip-Hop is often seen as a misogynistic sector of pop culture.  Perhaps this moment of Shakespeare’s words set to a rap beat is a bit of a mirror held up to the audience, a little reminder that we aren’t the utopia of sexual equality we might like to think we are.  “Oh, my dear father,” Kate sings before that father sells her sister to the highest bidder and her to the only man who’ll have her.  At one point during the final wedding feast, there are twelve men on stage and no women.  And then, Elter is joined by everyone in what must be seen as a powerful statement to our still unequal society, reflected in the casual misogyny of Shakespeare’s time, that indeed, It’s Now or Never.  The entire play is a mirror!

The Freewill Players, with Artistic Director Marianne Copithorne directing, have achieved something remarkable.  They have taken what seems to be an irredeemably misogynistic early play of Shakespeare and presented it to a modern audience as a gentle or not so gentle challenge, as an urge to conversation, and as a powerful demonstration of the joyful power of cooperative effort.  And, we laugh. And, we are moved by Kate’s closing speech in defence of a social order that today seems odious.  Kate and Bianca and the disturbingly nameless Widow who marries Hortensio are strong women in a society which reviles strong women.  In the performances of Hulbert and Goddard and Annette Loiselle they are admirable in their strength.  And Hulbert makes us believe, not that Kate has made the morally correct decision, but that her submission is the only course open to her and that by submitting she may retain some small amount of control.    An uncomfortable conclusion for a contemporary audience, but a reminder that most women in the world today, heroic, strong women, including in Western countries, remain in Petruchio’s Taming School.

If there is to be change, truly,  It’s Now or Never.

Freewill Players production of The Taming of the Shrew continues at the Myer Horowitz Theatre until July 27, 2014.

 

And a reminder:

The sudden loss of the Heritage Amphitheatre canopy, while repairable, has had a catastrophic impact on the Freewill Players’ financial situation.  The fact that Shakespeare is performed outdoors in the middle of our city with trees and grass and water and squirrels and the occasional thunder storm makes  Edmonton a better place to live.  Shakespeare’s plays, even the most problematic of them, are always worth experiencing.  When performed by a company as willing to engage deeply with the text, to take risks, and with the skill, talent and courage to rise to face whatever slings and arrows outrageous fortune sends their way, the Stage – whatever stage – truly becomes All the World.  The Freewill Players have done exactly this for twenty-six summers now.  But the twenty-sixth has been a huge financial challenge.  If a twenty-seventh Freewill Festival somehow didn’t happen, Edmonton would be a horribly poorer place.

Please consider seeing The Taming of the Shrew.  Please consider donating, even just once or with monthly donations through the Goodwill for Freewill Campaign.

An Open Letter to Mr. Thomas Mulcair concerning the “withering on the vine” of the Canadian Senate

I sent this by email this evening.

 

Mr. Mulcair.

I have volunteered on the campaigns of both MP Linda Duncan and MLA Rachel Notely. For some time I donated monthly to the NDP, even though my income precludes any benefit from tax credits (which only benefit the wealthy, by the way, so the NDP really shouldn’t be pushing them). I am proud than my riding, Edmonton-Strathcona, is the only non-CPC riding in Alberta.

Some time ago I stopped my monthly donation because I truly cannot in good conscience support a party which has as its goal the abolition of the Senate, one of only two (appointed, by the way) institutions which can constitutionally stand in the path of an out of control executive with a majority in the House.

Today I learned that you, Mr. Mulcair, supported the absurd and constitutionally impossible idea of simply ceasing to appoint new Senators, the idea that the Senate might simply “wither on the vine” without the need for nasty Constitutional meddling.

Have you read our Constitution, Mr. Mulcair? The Constitution Act, 1867, sec. 91 clearly requires that ALL new legislation receive the consent of the House AND the Senate before Royal Consent may be considered, never mind granted:

91. It shall be lawful for the Queen, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate and House of Commons, to make Laws for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada, in relation to all Matters not coming within the Classes of Subjects by this Act assigned exclusively to the Legislatures of the Provinces; and for greater Certainty, but not so as to restrict the Generality of the foregoing Terms of this Section, it is hereby declared that (notwithstanding anything in this Act) the exclusive Legislative Authority of the Parliament of Canada extends to all Matters coming within the Classes of Subjects next hereinafter enumerated; that is to say, etc.

Never mind the rest. The important part is “With the Advice and Consent of the Senate”. That’s it, right there in Section 91 of the Constitution Act 1867. No Senate to give consent, no legislation by Parliament.

How do you propose to pass ANY legislation after the fading of the Senate? Any legislation granted Royal Assent without the consent of the Senate – an impossibility if there are no Senators – would be the subject of a completely legitimate and necessarily successful court challenge. Any simplistic attempt to allow the Senate to “wither on the vine” would not lead to enhanced democracy. Rather, it would lead to Legislative paralysis, Judicial gridlock, and a lawless, anarchic Canada.

I am disappointed that you, Mr. Mulcair, have made public statements about the Senate which show either a tragic ignorance of Canada’s Constitution, or, an paternalistic attitude to what you must think an ignorant and gullible populace. Your misguided targeting of the Senate strikes me as cheap opportunism and a sad lack of integrity. You seem to be trying to make an end run around both Canada’s Constitution and the hard working citizens of Canada.

I’m disappointed.

Sincerely,

John Richardson
etc.

“Lightfinder” by Aaron Paquette: Comparisons Will Inevitably Be Made

 

(no spoilers ahead!)

Lightfinder by artist Aaron Paquette is a stunning debut novel, an enthralling first instalment of what promises to be an exciting series of novels for young adults (and all sorts of other readers). Comparisons will inevitably be made (I’ll do it myself in a moment), but unlike authors of some of the popular novel series for young adults of the recent and not-so-recent past, Paquette has firmly rooted the adventure in our real world: no Ministry of Magic, no post-Apocalyptic Panem, and although there are magical journeys, they are not to some aborted Medievalist fantasy called Narnia or anything else. Lightfinder is an adventure in the landscape and geography – and political economy – of Canada – specifically Alberta – today. And it is an aventure through the difficult life of Paquette’s young Cree heroine, Aisling, from the challenge of rising above the generational abuse suffered by her ancestors to simply finish school, through the tragedy of parental alcoholism and death, to the realization that she, and her runaway brother Eric are the keys to the future of Planet Earth.

Aisling, with the help of her Auntie Martha and Kokum Georgia begins on a quest to rescue Eric from the evil influence of the mysterious boy Cor. Quickly it becomes clear that the real quest is nothing less than to save the Earth from destruction by the evil “Raven” (long ago “Raven” wiped life off the faces of both Mars and the Moon). Along the way, Aisling is helped (and hindered) in her quest by a number of humans and individuals from the dream world – “real” world and dream world mingle. There’s the half-Australian Aborigine, Matari; the shy school-friend Jake; the Dreaming figures of Laughing Toad, Standing Coyote, and Walking Man.

And, the comparisons will innevitably come: “The Lightfinder Saga is an Indigenous Harry Potter!” “Lightfinder is a Native Narnia!” “Dune in the Boreal Forest!” “A First Nations Hunger Games!”

I admit, while reading Lightfinder I briefly made all three comparisons as well as the analogy Paquette explicitly makes to Star Wars:

“Do or do not,” her Kokum chimed in with a mischievous smile. “There is no try.” p. 64

I argue, however, that, while such analogies may easily be drawn, and the comparisons may bring fruitful understandings, Lightfinder is not in any significant way derivative of the blockbuster icons which have preceded it.

The Harry Potter series with which J. K. Rowling addicted a generation or more of young people to reading is perhaps the most obvious parallel, obvious not least because the boy wizard and Hogwarts have so penetrated the popular consciousness. But, Rowling’s world is removed from ours, an imaginative but fundamentally unreal pastiche of pretend European magical themes, practices and ideas grafted onto an alternative universe in which all the magic is hidden by the rather unbelievable conspiracy called the Ministry of Magic. Its all good fun, but no matter how well we suspend our disbelief, Privet Drive -never mind Hogwarts – is not a part of our world.

Paquette’s world, on the other hand, is firmly rooted in North American realities, the reality of Indigenous kids forced by history into adulthood before their teen years have begun, the reality of environmental devastation by faceless, unnamed forces, and the reality of vibrant and freshly alive Native spirituality and tradition. Whether or not we believe in the magic of Lightfinder, it is an organic magic of our real world, developed over generations, not the artificial playthings constructed by Rowling for Hogwarts to teach its young charges. Aisling is a girl just like any number you will see each day on Edmonton’s LRT, at school in Maskwacîs, or visiting with her Kokum in Standoff, or Sucker Creek, or Cold Lake or an apartment in Saskatoon. She has no lightening bolt scar. She’s not an only-child orphan of mysterious parents. What is remarkable about her is what is remarkable about any teenage girl: she intends to change her world.

Like C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books, Lightfinder has parallel worlds and talking animals. But, unlike those of Lewis, Paquette’s animals talk because they are part of a real, vast, coherent mythological tradition, not because they are just pulled out of various religious and historic periods or even thin air, as Lewis’ are pulled.

And the world of Lightfinder is harsh and gritty. Wounding and death can and do come to the characters in graphic descriptions never seen by Harry and his friends or the Pevensie kids. Lightfinder owes more to The Orenda than to Narnia. It is this gritty realism that is pretty much Lightfinder‘s only similarity to The Hunger Games.

An analogy could be made between the Messianic trappings of Paul Atriedes in Dune and the two protagonists of Lightfinder. In both books the expected child(ren) arrive too early, upsetting the grand plan somewhat. But Messiahs in world literature are legion, and the environmental concerns of Lightfinder I’m sure owe everything to Paquette’s experience, and nothing to the dry-land ecology of Dune.

Overshadowing all, of course, is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, another quest by an unlikely hero to save the world from life-sucking evil. The Lord of the Rings, for anyone who has read the nearly-two-dozen posthumous volumes of Tolkien’s writings (I have) will know, is rooted as deep as the lowest depths of the Mines of Moria in the pre-Christian mythology and languages – philology we might say – of Northern Europe (principally Germanic and Finnish). In the author’s bio at the back of the book, and also at the book’s launch in Edmonton, Paquette remembers his mother’s imitation of Gollum as she read The Lord of the Rings to him as a child. I think, here, in The Lord of the Rings, there may be the only really significant influence from Fantasy literature by European Colonial authors. But, again, Paquette’s tale takes place today in readily identifiable places, not in the distant shadowed past of Middle Earth. “Raven” resembles more the god of Pullman’s His Dark Materials than he does Sauron. There is no “Fellowship” of disparate races in Lightfinder. Rather, there is family and (sometimes false) friends.

No. Lightfinder is not a Metis Lord of the Rings.

In the end, although we inevitably note reminders of books we’ve read before, Lightfinder is a brilliantly fresh, enthralling first novel, a novel that I expect will inspire a new generation of young readers both within and far beyond Canada’s First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities. In fact, I’d venture to say Lightfinder will likely be not only a best seller, but a blockbuster that brings to an international generation an indigenous reality and, just maybe, a change to the world.

It would probably make a good movie, too!

 

Lightfinder by Aaron Paquette is published by Kegedonce Press.

Two weeks after its release, a second printing was needed.

“Jennie’s Story” at the Walterdale Playhouse

In these days of fairly routine genetic testing, of early diagnosis of susceptibility to genetically based diseases, in these times of new reproductive technologies, in these years so removed from the eugenics movements of the last century which culminated most darkly in the Final Solution, today, when a generation or two has grown up with no memory of the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act. . . .

These days a little touch of eugenics, a little improvement of the breed, might seem attractive. Maybe people with heritable genetic disorders should be encouraged to remain childless. Maybe, to improve the gene pool . . . .

But any attractiveness which may rise up today, if it is based on science at all, is based, like the earlier eugenics movements, on the science of stock breeding, which has created a gene pool so limited in many species that extinction could come from a minor illness. True genetic strength in a population comes from variety, from the mess that is natural selecion. A four person panel sterilizing a scatter of people based on brief interviews will do far less for the strength of the breed than will education, diet, public health, and the genetic roll of the dice that is human courtship behaviour.

We know all this – or should – by this point in our scientific investigation of the universe. And yet, we remain faced with new challenges because we can know so much about our children before they are born or even before they are conceived. It is indeed a Brave New World in the dark Huxlean sense of Miranda’s phrase. My neighbour Theresa Shea has recently confronted us with these issues provokingly in her novel The Unfinished Child. Some four decades ago, Betty Lambert confronted us from the other end of Eugenic History in her wrenching play Jennie’s Story currently in revival at Edmonton’s Walterdale Playhouse.

I scored a couple of tickets to opening night courtesy of Assistant Stage Manager Jenna Marynowski, but, I confess, I hesitated about taking my usual theatre-loving sidekick. You see, if she’d been born three or four or more decades earlier, she might have ended up before the Board for a decision under the Sexual Sterilization Act. It was looking to be a potentially heavy and personal evening of theatre.

In the end, I, like society at large, eventually made the right decision and opted for inclusion, and it was yet another evening of theatre magic in Edmonton.

A note about the Walterdale Playhouse

There can be shit on Broadway and gold in a high school production of Jesus Christ Superstar, so don’t anybody get snooty about Community Theatre. In my limited experience I’ve seen (now Sir) Patrick Stewart in a pedestrian production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Royal Shakespeare Company and I’ve seen the grab bag of characters in the Freewill Players make magic on a shoestring with the same play. Any stage can be boring or can be magical, but in my experience of the do-it-for-the-love-of-theatre crowd at the Walterdale have consistently delivered the goods.

To the play, the production and the performances

As I mentioned, Jennie’s Story is not a new play. It was first staged a decade before Leilani Muir brought the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act to wider public attention with her successful law suit against the Alberta Government for unlawful confinement, forced sterilization, and the lasting stigma of having been legally labelled a “moron”. it will be remembered that Muir was, in fact, of “normal” mental ability and had actually been an abused and unwanted child.

Muir’s real experiences, and those of so many others, are reflected in the fictional experiences of Jennie McGrane, the tragic heroine of Jennie’s Story. And herein also lies a fundamental tension in the experience of the play. We go to the play today with (if we’re Albertans of sufficient age and attentiveness to current events) with some knowledge of the Sexual Sterilisation Act. And, we likely go on thinking, “well, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to sterilize the *severely* mentally handicapped, like Carolyn in Shea’s Unfinished Child.” (But readers of The Unfinished Child may remember that Carolyn was institutionally abused – perhaps the cause of the severity of her disability, and, Carolyn became biological mother to a “normal” child.) Jennie’s Story overturns any such preconceptions immediately. Heather Brooke, in a beautiful, silent, lovingly long opening shows us that Jennie is ravishingly in love with life, devoted to her home and husband, brilliant in the role she sees for herself, keeper of the home fires of a rural farmstead in 1930s Alberta. There is nothing about Jennie that is not beautifully and wholly human. And yet, she is the subject of this story of the legal, forceful sterilization of a “mental defective”. Within thirty seconds Heather Brooke and Jennie’s Story overturn expectations and more than a few unnuanced prejudices.

The set is a beautiful piece of simplicity. All action takes place in the big farmhouse kitchen typical of Canada’s prairies. I can remember staying in a guest house on a painting excursion to Eastend, Saskatchewan and being amazed that the kitchen of the old house took up half the main floor. Stage right there’s a small riser with a tiny bed, Jennie’s refuge and the location of an aborted intimate moment between Jennie and her devoted but overwhelmed husband, Harry (Ryan Beck).

The set dressing is exquisitely evocative of the time, right down to the black cast iron hand pump (Princess Auto?) I have two for rainbarrels) which really pumps water into the kitchen sink. This is a well appointed Alberta farmhouse kitchen circa 1938. With newly installed electric lights!

I probably should avoid spoilers, so, suffice it to say, Jennie, as a young teenager, was sterilized without her knowledge or consent, on the pretext of being a mental defective, but actually because of the horrific combined events of: her mother having lost five babies and then her husband – which made her malleable when here signature of consent was needed; the serial sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her parish priest; and, most heinous, the priest’s selfish desire to cover up his abuse.

Syrell Wilson as Edna, Jennie’s mother, is wonderful, by turns slave-driver intent on expunging all household “filth” with lye-water and shatteringly vulnerable as the virtual sole-survivor of a family wiped out by the vagaries of chance or God.

John Trethart is chillingly slimy and tortured and self-righteous as Father Edward, but I found myself feeling he was a bit too much channelling Tom Baker as Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra. I couldn’t help but uncomfortably feel that Father Edward was a much lesser victim but a victim nonetheless of the absurd requirement of celibacy of young men “called” to the priesthood. Edward is a local farm boy, from the same area as Jennie. in a sensible world, we would have courted a young lady, and she would have courted him, and they would have discovered the world of sexuality together as equals. But in a Catholic community in Alberta in the 1930s, he has been shoved into celibacy before he knew what it was. But these nuances of Father Edward’s background are largely ignored, and he is left a sort of Mad Monk, not yet old enough for a beard, but already cultivating the haughty disposition, the greasy black hair, and the black cassock of Rasputin. But Trethart does a tremendous job of this villainous priest.

I haven’t said enough about Ryan Beck as Jennie’s husband. Beck i completely natural as the strong man who is in control of his universe, the sensitive man who reads poetry and wishes his wife would damn well sit down with the men like an equal, and the man who is out of his depth because the people beyond his circle are doing unfathomable things.

And Heather Brooke’s Jennie, a devoutly, faithfully, trustingly Catholic girl who would have been truly and properly (for her) fulfilled as the mother of a happy brood of children fathered by a good if somewhat eccentric husband. I know well exactly such completely positive Catholic families. It is a tragedy – a true tragedy – that Jennie isn’t destined to be the matriarch of such a family, and Brooke makes us know this tragedy.

And, finally, Molly as Molly. Molly Mackinnon as the long suffering, hard working, magnificently gravid Molly Dorval. She’s the perfect apple cheeked, impertinent but obedient farm girl. She’s the one who feeds the farm hands when threshing time comes, inspite of not because of the guidance of Edna. She’s sixteen going on thirty-seven and running a complex business while carrying some Doukhobor fellow’s child under her skirt. She’s living proof of the success of natural selection, a stunning contrast to the failure of the Sexual Sterilization Act. But she remains vulnerable, as shown in her quiet scene with Harry. Homesick and pregnant, she’s asked to tell a story, and the story she tells shows her to be as in love with life as Jennie showed us in that silent opening scene.

Molly and Jennie are obviously parallel characters, but I would argue, from experience, that the parallel is not contrived. I well remember a young woman, single, a new mother, a new convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who, through the efforts of the Church was housed through her pregnancy and as a single mother in the basement suite of a young Morman family. The situation was, in fact, horrible. The couple upstairs had a number of fine children, but the mother, before marriage, had been an unwed mother. The very same church had in contrast “encouraged” her to give her child up for adoption. How hard would it be to have your church “encourage” you to host an unwed mother and her child in your home when the church had told you to abandon your own child? How hard is it for forcefully sterilized, Catholicly maternal Jennie to have obviously fecund Molly sharing a house with her husband?

Jennie’s Story isn’t a sledge hammer polemic about the Sexual Sterilization Act or about eugenics. Rather, it is an examination of the implications of the transfer of reproductive decisions from the family to the State or Church. Jennie’s Story is a story we must consider more and more as reproductive technologies progress and as the eugenics programs of the last century recede into history.

A final note on the set dressing

The gun behind the door, although fired in Act II, is not Chekov’s gun. Chekov’s gun is under the counter, and in the bucket, and in so much of the dialogue about cleaning.

 

 

Jennie’s Story is at the Walterdale Playhouse in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona Theatre District until July 12th, 2014.

A Thought on the Relocation of the Old Strathcona Cenotaph

The back alley in our neighbourhood is like the courtyards of old European cities.  It’s a place where local familes get together and chat and play and sometimes sit quietly.  Often we discuss local issues. The other night we were discussing the pending relocation of the Cenotaph in our neighbourhood.  Charlie made what I thought was an intriguing suggestion:

“You know the old Esso site on Whyte Ave.?” he said.  The old Esso site is a prime lot on the corner of Whyte Avenue and 105 Street that has been empty for longer than most can remember.  Lately there has been talk of redevelopment.

Charlie continued: “They’re asking for a variance to let them build six stories – the limit for the area is four.  Maybe the City should say ‘Okay. We’ll give you your six stories. But you have to set aside a patch of ground of such and such a size right on that high visibility corner as a park for the Cenotaph.’ “

Now doesn’t that sound like a win-win infill solution?