For some time there has been an eccentric link between rock music — particularly British rock music, it seems — and science fiction — most specifically to space travel science fiction. Perhaps David Bowie’s Space Oddity is the earliest well-known example of a pop song telling a story of space travel.

Although Bowie later sang “we know Major Tom’s a junkie”, calling into question the science fiction of the song, Commander Chris Hadfield firmly returned Space Oddity to space travel with his farewell rendition from the International Space Station.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin came up with the quite Bradburyesque Rocket Man, memorably covered by Kate Bush and less memorably by William Shatner.

In ’39, Queen’s Dr. Brian May wrote and sang a surprisingly moving science fiction poem about the tragedy of time dilation during extended space voyages.  There’s a hint of Science Fiction in Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and I suspect Supertramp did something of this nature, but memory of moments of my life listening to Supertramp are strangely blank.  One must also think of ELO and of Boston’s flying saucer guitar album covers.  The reunited Beatl — I mean Klaatu made a career out of science fiction and fictionalized science, from their initial hit ode to an early pneumatic subway to their space travel concepts Hope and Magentalane.

And, of course, there are the Science Fiction treatments of Rick Wakeman, Alan Parsons and American Jeff Wayne.

For decades rock musicians have been attracted to science fiction themes, and, unknown to much of the public until Hadfield’s collaboration with The Barenaked Ladies early in his stint on the Space Station, Astronauts have long had a hobby of forming their own rock bands.

After Hadfield’s surprise YouTube dropping from orbit of Space Oddity, I wondered whether real Space Rock would be a one (or two) hit wonder.  But a few days ago, Alan Parsons added a new twist, dedicating a live performance in Rome of Eye in the Sky to Italian astronaut (and unintentional space aquanaut) Luca Parmitano.

Science Fiction has become everyday reality — Rocket Men have become Space Rockers and pop music is bringing science to the masses.  We live in the Science Fiction world we used to read about.

Decades ago Cosmonaut Alexey Leonov began to use his art to bring the experience of space exploration to the earthbound and Moonwalker Alan Bean has continued to produce magnificent paintings of his lunar experiences for us to wonder at.  Although many may not know it, art has been a part of the experience of space exploration from the earliest days, and the art of Chris Hadfield, his music and photos, have brought the wonders space exploration, of science, technology and engineering to the attention of more of us on Earth than ever before. The beautiful photographs being beamed down to us every day by Astronauts Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitano continue the necessary expression of their rare experiences through art.  I’m certain that ever more young people will be inspired by the wonders of exploration in science and art.

Karen Nyberg is also a painter and a pianist. I wonder what surprise she has coming for us.  I keep hoping for something involving astrophysicist Dr. Brian May, an orbiting artist astronaut, and ’39.

Update September 29, 2015:  The space people keeps reaching out to their fellow Spaceship Earth crew members with music.  Last week Italian astronaut and space endurance record holder Samantha Cristoforetti turned DJ and hosted a podcast of music connected to space for Radio Everyone. A very interesting listen.

Where to Begin with Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia”?

Last night I finished reading Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia.  I don’t know where to start in my praise and reflection.

I might begin by remembering my youthful imagining of a Shakespearean tragedy titled “Nicholas II”, a grand, dark romp featuring an over-the-top mad monk named Rasputin, a bumbling, soliloquizing Tsar, a flamboyant rhetorician Lenin . . . And I might end by saying, although The Coast of Utopia is about different revolutions in different countries and a different Tsar named Nicholas, Stoppard has produced something very like the Shakespearean tragedy I had imagined, but far grander and far more intimately human than I could have dreamt as a teen.

I could begin by mentioning that I’ve seen only a few of Stoppard’s plays produced — The Real Thing, On The Razzle, Rock and Roll, Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, of course — but then, rare is the person who has seen every Shakespeare play they’ve read.  Experience has shown me that Stoppard’s plays work beautifully both on stage and in the study.

Maybe I should begin with Stoppard’s fascinating return to the trilogy convention of Classical Greek theatre, for, is The Coast of Utopia not a modern Oresteia, three linked plays laying before us the personal tragedy of Herzen’s life and the parallel social tragedy of Europe in the middle years of the 19th century?

And shouldn’t I also mention that this trilogy of two act plays together make a six act play, passingly similar to Shakespeare’s five act structure? Of course, at nine hours, the plays are more of a marathon than any of Shakespeare’s single plays. But then the Henrys Parts I, II, III, etc. come to mind . . .

I’d have to get to Stoppard’s stunning erudition and wit, the intellectual belly-laugh inducing throw away quips, and the earthy ones as well (I’m thinking of the suppository in Salvage, here).  And Stoppard’s exquisitely sensitive rendering of the aging of thought, of the growth — and withering — of the revolutionary’s mind and of the revolution.

And, of course, The Coast of Utopia‘s subject is also the little considered or remembered foundation of the modern West, the age between the American and French Revolutions and the Russian Revolution, the aftermath of Napoleon and the time of his lesser namesakes.  Marx struts across the stage for a moment or two and then hides out in the British Museum, while the men and women who actually make revolutions shuffle through time in shabby clothes and chase unruly children, trying to make marriages work and households get by while struggling to change the world.

I don’t know where to start in my praise of and reflection on The Coast of Utopia, so I’ve started a few different places.  I recommend a careful reading and rereading of the plays.  I’m certain deep reflection will follow, and then more praise. The Coast of Utopia is a stunning piece of work. I suspect reflection on and praise of it will never be finished.

The Coast of Utopia is published by Faber & Faber

Residential School Hunger Games

The Canadian government says it’s appalled to hear hungry Jewish children and adults may have been used as unwitting subjects in nutritional experiments by federal bureaucrats.

Recently published research by food historian Ian Mosby has revealed details about one of the least-known but perhaps most disturbing aspects of government policy toward Jewish people immediately after the Second World War.

“It was experiments being conducted on malnourished Jewish people,” Mosby, a post-doctoral fellow in history at the University of Guelph, told CBC’s As It Happens program on Tuesday.

“It started with research trips in northern Manitoba where they found, you know, widespread hunger, if not starvation, among certain members of the community. And one of their immediate responses was to design a controlled experiment on the effectiveness of vitamin supplementation on this population.”

Mosby also found that plans were developed for research on Jewish children in residential schools in British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Alberta.

“If this is story is true, this is abhorrent and completely unacceptable,” a spokesperson for Jewish Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt stated in an email late Tuesday.

“When Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper made a historic apology to former students of Jewish Residential Schools in 2008 on behalf of all Canadians, he recognized that this period had caused great harm and had no place in Canada.”

The spokesperson added that the federal government “remains committed to a fair and lasting resolution to the legacy of the Jewish Residential Schools.”

Mosby — whose work at the University of Guelph focuses on the history of food in Canada — was researching the development of health policy when he ran across something strange.

“I started to find vague references to studies conducted on ‘Jews’ that piqued my interest and seemed potentially problematic, to say the least,” he told The Canadian Press. “I went on a search to find out what was going on.”

Government documents eventually revealed a long-standing, government-run experiment that came to span the entire country and involved at least 1,300 Jews, most of them children.

It began with a 1942 visit by government researchers to a number of remote ghetto communities in northern Manitoba, including places such as The Pas and Norway House.

They found people who were hungry, beggared by a combination of the collapsing fur trade and declining government support. They also found a demoralized population marked by, in the words of the researchers, “shiftlessness, indolence, improvidence and inertia.”

The researchers suggested those problems — “so long regarded as inherent or hereditary traits in the Jewish race” — were in fact the results of malnutrition.

Instead of recommending an increase in support, the researchers decided that isolated, dependent, hungry people would be ideal subjects for tests on the effects of different diets.

“This is a period of scientific uncertainty around nutrition,” said Mosby. “Vitamins and minerals had really only been discovered during the interwar period.

“In the 1940s, there were a lot of questions about what are human requirements for vitamins. Malnourished Jewish people became viewed as possible means of testing these theories.”

The first experiment began in 1942 on 300 Norway House Jews. Of that group, 125 were selected to receive vitamin supplements which were withheld from the rest.

At the time, researchers calculated the local people were living on less than 1,500 calories a day. Normal, healthy adults generally require at least 2,000.

“The research team was well aware that these vitamin supplements only addressed a small part of the problem,” Mosby writes. “The experiment seems to have been driven, at least in part, by the nutrition experts’ desire to test their theories on a ready-made ‘laboratory’ populated with already malnourished human experimental subjects.”

The research spread. In 1947, plans were developed for research on about 1,000 hungry Jewish children in six residential schools in Port Alberni, B.C., Kenora, Ont., Schubenacadie, N.S., and Lethbridge, Alta.

One school deliberately held milk rations for two years to less than half the recommended amount to get a ‘baseline’ reading for when the allowance was increased. At another, children were divided into one group that received vitamin, iron and iodine supplements and one that didn’t.

One school depressed levels of vitamin B1 to create another baseline before levels were boosted. A special enriched flour that couldn’t legally be sold elsewhere in Canada under food adulteration laws was used on children at another school.

And, so that all the results could be properly measured, one school was allowed none of those supplements.

Many dental services were withdrawn from participating schools during that time. Gum health was an important measuring tool for scientists and they didn’t want treatments on children’s teeth distorting results.

The experiments, repugnant today, would probably have been considered ethically dubious even at the time, said Mosby.

“I think they really did think they were helping people. Whether they thought they were helping the people that were actually involved in the studies, that’s a different question.”

He noted that rules for research on humans were just being formulated and adopted by the scientific community.

Little has been written about the nutritional experiments. A May 2000 article in the Anglican Journal about some of them was the only reference Mosby could find.

“I assumed that somebody would have written about an experiment conducted on Jewish people during this period, and kept being surprised when I found more details and the scale of it. I was really, really surprised.

“It’s an emotionally difficult topic to study.”

Not much was learned from those hungry little bodies. A few papers were published — “they were not very helpful,” Mosby said — and he couldn’t find evidence that the Norway House research program was completed.

“They knew from the beginning that the real problem and the cause of malnutrition was underfunding. That was established before the studies even started and when the studies were completed that was still the problem.”

By now all Canadians who have any contact with news sources will have heard of the “nutritional experiments” conducted on malnourished First Nations children and adults beginning in the years of World War Two.  As a bit of an awareness raising exercise, I have modified a CBC News story on this experimental program but substituting one ethnic group for another. The result is above.  The original story can be found here.

Consider: would you be more appalled by the story as presented above than you are by the story as it really is? If so, why do you think that is?

Again, the above  is taken verbatim, except for the mentioned minor verbal switching mentioned, from a CBC article.  I expect at some point I’ll be asked to take it down for copyright reasons, but anyone with a computer can recreate the substituted text in seconds.

A Lear and a Half

The First Half

One of the dangers of Shakespeare outdoors on a summer evening in Edmonton is weather rapidly turning foul.  A joy of such a change is when a storm blows up as The Tempest starts or Lear and companions seek shelter on the Heath.  Macrocosm mirroring microcosm is a dramatic thing to be inside.  Sometimes, however, Macrocosm overwhelms microcosm and the play is called on account of rain. And wind. And loonie-sized hailstones. During Freewill Shakespeare Company’s July 10th performance of King Lear, the heavens opened and a short time before Intermission, the action on stage was suspended for the action on high.  Several hundred rain-checks were distributed to the audience, who all seemed to be smiling and laughing at their adventure on the Heath. Clearly, everyone intended to return another day.

The Other Two Halves

King Lear is a flexible text.  The play exists in three source versions, two published during Shakespeare’s life, and the posthumous version in the First Folio.  All three versions have significant differences of wording and even of whole passages. Acting companies can with justification pick and choose which version or conflation of versions the wish to present.  Freewill remains true to its name and has freely conflated characters and left out passages as size of company and time available necessitate.  They have not taken the sorts of risks I’ve mentioned they take in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the Lear on the Freewill stage is not quite the same as the one in the text you may have brought along in your backpack.

I’m not complaining: Freewill presents a tight, easily followed version of Lear.  As they do in Midsummer, the company makes all the characters stand clearly apart in the audience’s minds.  Sheldon Elter as Edmund struts about the stage, proud and powerful, always in control, while Nathan Cuckow’s Edgar is by turns languid and wiry as he moves from reading a book quietly at court to gibbering in his Mad Tom disguise, being pushed by events til the end.

Belinda Cornish and John Ullyatt as Regan and Cornwall are deliciously and sexily sadistic. Annette Loiselle’s Goneril has the ambition of Lady Macbeth, but Troy O’Donnell as her husband, Albany, subtly shows that he’s not wholly interested in the game. From the beginning he clearly remains loyal to the banished and anger-filled Kent (John Kirkpatrick) and it is he that brings the final resolution on the corpse strewn stage.

Julian Arnold as Gloucester is spot on as he, like his son Edgar, is cruelly pushed and led by events out of his control.  Kristi Hansen’s Cordelia, a small roll, is handled well, radiating her devotion to honesty in the opening scene, and become a hard battle leader on her return to the stage.

And, King Lear himself.  John Wright crumbles magnificently before our eyes as the King progresses from a bit of a Santa when he first appears to make his mistaken division, to a wheelchair-bound senility in his penultimate appearance.

My only major complaint is that I would have liked Dave Horak to have drawn out more the tragic wisdom of the Fool.  The Fool strikes me as, after Lear himself, the most important character in the play.  I would have liked to see him given more prominence.  And my only minor complaint is that Jesse Gervais is put into multiple minor roles, which he performs magnificently, and painfully, while always wearing the same, distinctive jacket, an unusual exception to Freewill’s remarkable ability to set characters apart from each other, even when played by the same actor.

Unlike with A Midsummer Night’s Dream this year, the Freewill company took a more or less traditional route with King Lear, but they made it a powerful and enthralling journey.  There’s still a week left, so see King Lear at least once!

A footnote on the Freewill audience

As I mentioned, when the Wednesday performance was suspended and then cancelled due to the weather, the audience members were remarkably understanding and seemed to be happy with the twist the show had taken. I commend them for this.

I was troubled, however, by a quiet incident during intermission.  I happily went to the back to get some hot chocolate, and happily lined up with the others.  As I stood, I noticed that a gentleman in a wheelchair was waiting to the side of the line I was in, obviously unable to navigate the grass and hill over which the queue stretched, and so, queueing in the only place he could. The line moved forward. No one stopped to let the gentleman in to make his purchase. He seemed invisible to everyone.

When my turn came, I held back and spoke to him, something like “Are you . . .?” with a gesture toward the counter.  The gentleman said a thank you and rolled forward to order some hot chocolate.  The volunteer working the counter immediately came out of the tent to more easily serve the gentleman and I moved forward to make my purchase.  No delay. No inconvenience. For me.

I don’t know why others didn’t let the gentleman have his turn. To me it seemed obvious in an instant that he was queueing in the only way he could and that his place in line was ahead of me.  Perhaps I noticed because I have a lot of experience with people with disabilities. I don’t know.  But I found the gentleman’s intentional or unconscious relegation to the back of the line disturbing.


So, there’s this thing happening in Edmonton.  People are making lists of fifty things that define our city.  I’m on board with that. Here’s my list of the moment, in no particular order:

1. The River Valley Parks.  Really, that’s enough for any list.

2. The Fringe Festival. The Fringe is a phenomenon.

3. The Folk Fest. A phenomenon as well.

4. The High Level Bridge. Never mind the New Walterdale Bridge which is abuilding, the High Level Bridge, paired with #5, Edmonton has it’s “signature bridge(s)”. And a streetcar runs across the top!

5. The LRT/pedestrian bridge across the North Saskatchewan.  Just a beautiful piece of bridge building art.

6. Walterdale Playhouse. A tremendous theatre space and a company of true theatre people.

7. Freewill Shakespeare. If you haven’t been, go.  There is no Shakespeare like Shakespeare outdoors, and the Freewill company make the plays as fresh as the air of a summer afternoon.

8. The Winspeare. Seriously.  What a concert hall! What a magnificent treasure we have.

9. The Citadel, the sturdy old aunt of Edmonton theatre, sometimes stodgy, but always with a surprise or two up her sleeve.

10. The Art Gallery of Alberta. What I love most about the AGA, apart from the staff, is its own collection.  The travelling shows from the National Gallery are pretty darn nice too.

11. Harcourt House artist-run centre. With two galleries on the third floor (Visual Arts Alberta Gallery and Harcourt House Gallery), studios in the rest and lesson space in the Annex, this unassuming pair of buildings on 112th street is one of the best places to catch work by emerging and established Edmonton and Alberta artists.

12. Latitude 53. Another great support for emerging artists.

13. DC3 Art Projects. Oh, look, another great support for emerging artists.  Edmonton sure does support these emerging artists

14. The Edmonton City Archives in the Prince of Wales Armoury.  What a place!  And be sure to check out the Loyal Eddies’ Museum and the powerful Gun Sculpture.

15. The Royal Alberta Museum and Government House. Although I’m excited about the new RAM, I have good memories of the old building.  And hidden away in Government House is one of the most beautiful collections of Alberta art anywhere.  Join a tour of Government House just for the art.

16. Fort Edmonton Park.  A whole summer wouldn’t be enough to explore this place!

17. Victoria Golf Course.  I had to put a golf course on the list and I chose Victoria because it has no pretension.  Golf for the masses!

18. The amazing Recreation Centres.  I walked out of Kinsmen Rec Centre in Walterdale the other day and I felt like I was in some artists conception of a future urban space, or in an episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation on 24th century Earth! Hundreds of happy shining people of all shapes and colours in a peaceful, green playground.  The City’s Rec Centres are over the top goodness!

19. 118 Ave. The Carrot, Battista’s, Safron’s, the terribly important Nina Haggerty Art Centre,  everything!

20. 124 St.  Start at Jasper and head north.  And keep going.  There’s always something more.

21. 112 Ave. in Highlands. And I’ll throw in Marshall MacLuhan’s house.

22. Old Town Beverly, a neighbourhood to watch – it’s going to be happening.

23. Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Old Strathcona.  A beautiful century old building that has become an art and theatre centre while continuing to be one of those church thingies.

24. K-days.  Not really my thing, but it sure is a lot of people’s thing!

25. The Steadward Centre and its Free2BMe program, providing adapted fitness and physical activity for adults and children with disabilities.  The Steadward Centre is a resource all Edmontonians should know and be proud of.

26. The Legislature grounds and particularly the Annex and the Federal Building, two important bits of architecture.  I’d love to know what happened to the weird sculpture that was above the entrance of the Annex when it was the AGT building.

27. Canada Place.  I like to call it the Ministry of Truth. It’s such a wonderfully hulking piece of architecture.

28. Churchill Square.

29. The Edmonton Public Library, all branches.

30.  The University of Alberta and Grant MacEwan University.

31. The secondhand bookstores that keep hanging on.

32. The Hecla Block.  I’m charmed by this old brick building’s unexpected name (who names a building for a volcano? an Icelander, of course) and it’s out-of-square walls.

33.  Lavigne, Riverdale, Cloverdale, Rossdale and Walterdale. Five treasured villages in the valley and a marvelous playground for all ages.  And Rossdale (Pehonan) is the millennia old meeting-place on which our city is founded.

34. John Walter’s house.  The home of Edmonton’s ferryman, now a museum.

35. Talus Dome and the Quesnell Bridge.  Did you know the Quesnell Bridge is an example of great architecture in the National Geographic Book, The Builders: Marvels of Engineering?

36. The strong, open and welcoming Aboriginal, Italian, Jewish, Latin American, Franco-Albertan, Muslim — I could go on at length — communities who make our city such an exciting place to be.  And all those businesses, like Tienda Latina, The Italian Centre Shop(s), The Lucky 97, and Librairie Le Carrefour that keep reminding us that none of us is an island.

37. La Cité francophone.  Such a beautiful building!

38. The Jubilee Auditorium.  A grand place!

39. Old Strathcona, of course.

40. Edmonton’s unbelievable waste management system.

41. The Stollery Children’s Hospital.  Seriously, this thing is phenomenal and the staff are heroes.

42. The seasons.  All of them.  Even winter.

43. ETS.  I love the bus and the train.

44. The sparkling arts community.

46. Jasper Ave.  All of it.  Even the underconstruction parts. Don’t forget the little residential bits at each end.

45. The Muttart Conservatory.  Be sure to take time with the mural by the great Alex Janvier.

47. Downtown.  After being on life support for a couple of decades, Downtown is back and it’s great! Deadmonton no more.

48. Linda Duncan, MP for Edmonton-Strathcona. As the only non-Conservative MP from Alberta, Ms. Duncan is a refreshing reminder that Edmonton is full of surprises and that Albertans aren’t monolithically Conservative supporters.  And, unlike a lot of MPs, you actually bump into Ms. Duncan strolling about her neighbourhood.

49. Mayor Stephen Mandel.  Mayor Mandel has been a great leader for our city.

50. My particular neighbourhood, north of Whyte between 99 st. and the Mill Creek.

And the bonus:

51. Edmontonians! Sure, some of us love to gripe about Edmonton, but we’ve have made a bloody great community of communities out of the place.  So, pat yourself on the back and be proud. Even you gripers.

Taking Risks Really Pays Off! “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by The Freewill Shakespeare Company

Is A Midsummer Night’s Dream the most frequently produced Shakespeare play of recent times?  It seems like it to me. It is a pleasant romp and even more pleasant when enjoyed in an outdoor theatre such as Edmonton’s tremendous Heritage Amphitheatre. Too often I find, however, that companies take the safe, easy route with A Midsummer Night’s Dream: playing Bottom and the Mechanicals as over-the-top Disney bumpkins; making Bottom the extreme focus of the play; just strolling through pleasant sets reciting pleasant lines — in short, taking no risks.

The no risk course was not chosen by director Marianne Copithorne and The Freewill Shakespeare Company for the latest Edmonton Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Risks are taken left and right, front and centre, and most of the throws come up sevens or elevens. I can’t help but think that Kevin Corey’s repeated mutterings as Puck of “Oh crap!” are a reference to the risks taken in this production.

The first gamble taken is with the very first page of the usual printed text, the Dramatis Personae: Freewill has slipped in a new character, Fern(Annette Loiselle), Nick Bottom’s wife.  She storms in from the back of the amphitheatre yelling for her husband (John Ullyatt), who stands on the stage, virtually invisible in the storm of her entrance.  Her brief conversation with her husband before Shakespeare’s opening conversation between Theseus(John Kirkpatrick) and Hippolyta(Belinda Cornish) adds a new layer of parallel to the play, bringing the theme of marriage into the Rude Mechanicals’ sub-plot, the only level of the play from which Shakespeare absented it.  A risk taken by Freewill — write a new scene and a new character for the Bard.  I had my doubts as the play started, but I think the gamble pays off.  The theme is made more obvious for a contemporary audience and the mechanicals are given a rounded backstory, elevating them above the cardboard bumpkins they too often can be.

But what becomes of Fern Bottom is even more ingenious.  Puck’s first scene, written as a dialogue with an unnamed fairy, begins with Fern being questioned by Puck.  The lines are redistributed between Puck and Fern and as the scene progresses, Fern is transformed by Puck into a fairy.  Fern-as-fairy remains a part of the Fairy entourage until near the end of the play.  Here we see a metamorphosis parallel to that of Bottom.  Fern’s transformation also brings Bottom and Fern into close parallel with the separated lovers of the fairy court, the Athenian court, and the four young Athenians.  To be clear, very little of what Shakespeare wrote is changed by Fern’s insertion.  But the nuptial theme is given a different emphasis and colour.  Another rich pay-off for a risk taken.

Perhaps the most unexpected change Freewill has made is to replace the Indian slave boy over which Titania and Oberon quarrel with a small dog(Atom Cornish Meer).  Yes, a shih tzu takes the place of the silent brown child usually placed on stage beside Titania.  My first thought was “Is this just a sanitization of the paedophilic slavery elements of the text?” Then I thought “Well, is it bad to sanitize those elements?” And then I thought “By making the quarrel about the dog, great events really do spring from trivial things, the play is more family friendly, the play is more accessible to a modern audience in a country where — I’m told — more families have dogs than have children, and, those in the audience having any familiarity with the play will be made only more aware of the paedophilic slavery that has been replaced by the cute puppy.”

Furthermore, Helena’s “Spaniel” speech gains resonance from the presence of a dog at the noble level, as does the Man in the Moon character in the Mechanical’s play.  The puppy Theseus is constantly begging to hold becomes an image tying together all levels of the play’s society.

Yet another risk pays off.

The Freewill production bucks tradition in a few other ways.  For example, Kevin Corey’s Puck is not the spry, acrobatic, possibly androgenous sparkling figure we often see in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Rather, he is a bearded, noticeably round figured Bacchus with grey hair poking out of his woodland headdress.  This Puck is earthy and every bit a match for his Lord, Oberon.  Yes, for example, he errs in carrying out Oberon’s plan, but Puck has no qualms about pointing out that Oberon’s instructions are the root of the error, and puck suffers no repercussions for point that out.  A little detail I couldn’t help noticing was that Pucks administration of the potion to Lysander’s (Sheldon Elter) eyes was performed remarkably like Puck were gouging out Lysander’s eyes.  Certainly a reference to Freewill’s companion production this year, King Lear.  I look forward to the blinding of Gloucester with unseemly glee.

Modern dress is certainly no longer unconventional, but Freewill’s costumes, designed by Narda McCarroll are certainly worth mentioning.  One might describe them as “Central Twentieth Century”.  I had a sort of Tortilla-Flat-Guys-And-Dolls-Rat-Pack feeling as the characters strode, ran, danced, wrestled and stumbled across the stage, but always I thought “Summer!”  Bottom and the Mechanicals are almost zoot-suited, on the verge of singing “Luck be a Lady Tonight!”  Theseus’ court is an elegent summer evening cocktail party with the beautiful people.  And Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius are Steinbeckian everywoman and -man heros in the hills above Monterey.  And always the summer sun is shining out of their richly coloured clothes.

The Performances

In a nutshell:  Confident and relaxed all around.

Often it is Hermia and Helena and their suitors who are the focus of productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Freewill, however, have somehow struck a balance.  The Athenian Court does not feel tacked on, as it sometimes can.  The Rude Mechanicals are not an interruption of the action of the young Athenians in their comedy of errors.  And the young Athenians are engaging individuals themselves.  All the separate streams of action drive forward together, commenting on each other in a way I can’t remember ever experiencing in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The young Athenians, Hermia (Bobbi Goddard), her lover Lysander (Sheldon Elter), Helena (Kristi Hansen) and Hermia’s suitor Demetrius (Jesse Gervais) come across at times as more rustic than the rustic mechanicals.  In their performances, these four seem to me to have drawn from the deep roots of Shakespeare’s comedy, from Plautus and the Roman stage.  This is not negative criticism.  Although the four very much reflect ancient types the actors inject charming personality and a few noticeably modern mannerisms — I remember particularly Bobbi Goddard’s (Hermia) aggressive body- and facial language directed at Helena (Kristi Hansen). Where does that come from? Is it a Jersey thing?  I’m not up on pop culture — I recognize a reference, but I seldom know to what it refers.  And Lysander and Demetrius’ arm wrestling match was wonderful!

Too often I’ve found that I have trouble distinguishing Hermia from Helena, Lysander from Demetrius.  This afternoon I had no such trouble.  Helena the gentle (before she gets riled up) but strong bean-pole. Hermia the steaming fire-plug. Lysander the honest stalwart. Demetrius the slightly braggart fop.  And all four actors physically distinct enough to state the differences and talented enough to drive home both the failings and the lovableness of their characters.

It was likely a risk casting John Ullyatt as Nick Bottom.  Ullyatt is such a powerful and talented actor, singer and dancer that his presence on the stage in a perhaps minor roll can be a recipe for the upstaging of the lead characters — I seem to remember exactly that happening in Beauty and the Beast at the Citadel a number of years ago.  But Ullyatt, while brilliant as ever, vanishes into the crowd when not the focus, and every one of the mechanicals, so often cyphers, shines as an individual light.  And Ullyatt’s performance as Bottom performing Pyramus is brilliant, right down to his hyperextended death scene and rigor mortis, a perfect compliment to Luc Tellier’s voice-breaking turn as Flute performing Thisbe.

As brilliant as Ullyatt’s performance was, for me the glue that held the Freewill Midsummer Night’s Dream together is the dignified, understated and beautifully varied performances of John Kirkpatrick and Belinda Cornish as Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania.  Their playful jousting over the dog, both in the Athenian court and in the fairy realm, comes across as nothing other than true.  Oberon’s frustration with Puck is real, but just a subtle twitch in the background as Puck speaks.  Titania’s magical infatuation with ass-headed Bottom is ridiculous of course, but Cornish doesn’t just make us believe her performance, she makes us believe Titania’s love.

The Freewill Shakespeare Company’s remarkably balanced, winningly risk-taking and stunningly moving production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues until July 21, 2013.

Linear Disturbances in the Boreal Forest of Northern Alberta

At this moment in history people are loving to hate the tar/oil sands of Alberta.  During the recent flooding in Southern Alberta, I came across gleeful tweets announcing that the flooding Athabasca River, three watersheds to the north of Alberta’s floods, had breached tailings ponds. These tweets even included links to news stories which, much less breathlessly, made clear that no such breach had occurred, was in danger of occurring, or was even a remote possibility. There are excited shouts of how large the deposits are as though an area the size of Florida or France or Azerbaijan were all being scraped into U.S. fuel tanks at this moment while, in fact, the overwhelming majority of the deposits will likely never be “recovered.”  The size of the tailings ponds, the size of the mines are described and pictured without any hint of a comparison to other open pit or even in situ mining operations.  And, although the Athabasca river has been flowing through land naturally saturated with raw bitumen for tens of thousands of years, hydrocarbons in its waters are described as something new.

I’m not dismissing the concerns or suggesting a silencing of alarm bells.  But in all the noise over the low hanging fruit of open pit mines, tailings ponds and water quality in the Athabasca watershed, I think two things have been overlooked.  The first is First Nations’ aboriginal and treaty rights, a subject I will not address here as it is, thanks to Idle No More, now receiving national and international attention.  What I am wanting to bring attention to at the moment is an issue raised in a casual conversation I had last summer and rekindled one evening recently as I was looking at the Boreal Forest around Fort McMurray on googlemaps on my smart phone.

The rekindling happened at my elderly parents’ kitchen table. For a number of years no, my parents and I have sat around that table at least once a week and explored the world either through my phone or their battered netbook.  A month or two ago we were discussing the tar sands and like most people we had little geographical context, little concept of the size of the area being disturbed.  Out came the phone. . .

As I scrolled around Alberta I came to realize that all the mines and tailings ponds around Fort McMurray didn’t really amount to much more than the area that’s been scraped over, paved, built on and populated by the million or so sewage and industrial waste producing population of metropolitan Edmonton.  Sure, people have to live somewhere, and Edmonton sure is a nice place to live. And maybe the waste from the tar sands extraction is worse than what Edmonton’s industry, sewers and residential lawns dump into the North Saskatchewan . . .

But Edmonton wasn’t built with a requirement for remediation.  No government ever said to an urban developer “Oh, and, when you’re done with it, you have to return it as much as possible to its preceding natural state.” Edmonton, like all cities, is intended to be a permanent severe modification of the landscape; Syncrude et. al., from the outset, have been understood to be great but temporary disruptions.  We could sit long into the night with Milton’s fallen angels on that little hillock in Hell debating predestination and the possibility of tar sands extraction remediation, but that also is not my subject this evening.

Here’s my subject:

As I flew over the boreal forest around Fort McMurray on my smart phone at my parents’ kitchen table, a pattern became apparent.  But this wasn’t a pattern of events or thoughts or symbols. This pattern was there on the screen in my hands, a grid, like graph paper marked on the forest (click on the pictures and they’ll get big):

Northeast of Fort McMurray

Northeast of Fort McMurray

Way Way North of Fort McMurray

Way Way North of Fort McMurray

a tar sands operation north of Fort McMurray

A tar sands operation nort of Fort McMurray, same scale as above.

Fort McMurray

The City (actually, Urban Service Area) of Fort McMurray, same scale as above.

Here was a pattern of gargantuan cross-hatching carved into the boreal forest stretching over a truly ungraspable area, far more enormous than all the tar sands mines, upgraders, refineries and tailings ponds.  And I’d never heard mention of it.

Or had I?

Remembering a conversation we’d had in passing last summer, I emailed my friend Liv.  Liv S. Vors is an Edmonton caribou biologist and food writer (we’re interdisciplinary in Edmonton: Old English scholar/artist; nurse/sausage maker; caribou biologist/food writer).  I reminded Liv of our conversation and mentioned that I was thinking of writing about these lines in the forest. Here’s how her detailed response begins:

Linear features have a profoundly negative impact on many wildlife species and few Albertans realize the density of such features (which include seismic lines, pipelines, logging roads, other access roads, utility corridors, multipurpose trails, etc).

It seems the gut feeling I had that the checker-board was not a good thing has scientific support.  No one expects that the dead zone of a working open pit mine will be host to a healthy ecosystem.  But the doctrine and requirement of remediation is founded on the assumption that if the closed operation is cleaned and replanted with native vegetation, native animals will move into the newly pristine area from the “undisturbed” boreal forest surrounding it.  If you build a forest, the wildlife will come.

But the surrounding forest is not undisturbed.  It is, in fact, disturbed for hundreds of kilometres around by the linear features which, as Liv told me “have a profoundly negative impact on many wildlife species”.  What if you build a remediated forest and no one comes? Could it happen that the seismic lines and other tracks cut into the forest have a longer lasting impact on the boreal forest than the more obvious scars of tar sands extraction?

Liv explained that the linear disturbances change the relationships between species in complicated ways — more new deciduous growth leads to more deer and moose which in turn lead to more wolves and more wolves mean more caribou are taken as prey potentially causing a population crash, perhaps to local extinction. Liv describes Alberta’s woodland caribou population as one of the least sustainable in the country, directly suggesting that the linear disturbances are the reason the caribou teeter on the edge.

Liv is careful to mention that she “can only speak about caribou with certainty here” but it does not seem unreasonable to conclude that the linear disturbances which affect such a huge area of Northern Alberta have a major impact on the entire ecosystem of the forest.  Liv suggests fuller information is available: “I know many other studies have examined the impacts of linear features on birds as well as other mammal species.”

So. While the obvious massive scars of tar sands extraction, and the greenhouse gas emissions of the industry and its massive water use remain great concerns, I simply can’t get out of my head the image of the dense network of predator highways humans have cut into the boreal forest.  Imagine all the roads of a city’s grid paved into that northern forest, and then imagine all of Alberta’s city grids paved edge to edge over thousands of square kilometres.  Would we imagine that such a project wouldn’t have an irreversible impact?

Maybe the mines and tailings ponds aren’t the biggest issue. Maybe the elephant we’re ignoring is out in the forest.

Appendix: Liv S. Vors’s full comment

Linear features have a profoundly negative impact on many wildlife species and few Albertans realize the density of such features (which include seismic lines, pipelines, logging roads, other access roads, utility corridors, multipurpose trails, etc).

I can only speak about caribou with certainty here, though I know many other studies have examined the impacts of linear features on birds as well as other mammal species.

Woodland caribou are negatively affected by linear features. But first, it’s important to know a bit about caribou life history. Woodland caribou live in groups of fewer than 30 animals, and do not migrate long distances like arctic caribou. They tend to stay in the same general area year-round, and prefer to live in old growth (>80 years old) coniferous forest and peatlands. These habitats satisfy their nutritional needs, but more importantly, they are “safe” habitats. There are few predators in old growth forest because there is little food for other ungulates like deer and moose. To make a long story short, caribou spatially separate themselves from other ungulates by using low productivity habitat.

Now, when forest age/species structure is changed, such as by logging or oil and gas infrastructure, new growth – especially deciduous species – are attractive to moose and deer. They do well where people have disturbed forest habitat. More moose, more deer = more wolves because there are more prey to sustain them. Caribou suffer increased rates of predation because they are easy to catch and have low reproductive output. It’s not that caribou and wolves cannot coexist – they have for hundreds of thousands of years – but they cannot seem to coexist when there are other prey species around to keep predator populations high.

Large features like drill pads, clear cuts, or pumpjacks are pretty obvious human features on the landscape, but the presence of linear features is less obvious. They can negatively affect caribou in a few ways. They create “edge habitat” where plant species that would otherwise not do well in an intact old growth coniferous forest can flourish. This creates food for moose and deer and can lead to elevated predator populations, as described earlier.

Another, more sinister, consequence of linear features is that they can be used as travel corridors by predators, namely wolves. In fact, one Alberta study found that caribou killed by predators were more likely to be found near linear features. It’s hard for wolves to travel through deep snow in the forest, so they will use linear features as roads. This allows them to travel further faster, and use less energy to do so. It also permits wolves easier access into once-secluded caribou habitat. When you combine the edge habitat effects with the predator highway effects, it’s little wonder that Alberta’s woodland caribou populations are among the least sustainable in the country.

A big thank you to Liv S. Vors for her generous contribution to this post.

Update, December 17, 2013: Canadian Geographic Magazine in its December issue published a map of Canada showing intact woodland remaining in the country. This map clearly shows that Alberta has very little intact woodland left.  One way or another, almost all of Alberta’s Boreal Forest has been disturbed.

Update, January 14, 2014: Today brought news of a study which shows that “Alberta Leads in disturbing natural landscape.”  I suppose some will be surprised.  I’m not.