As thousands were fleeing their homes in Fort McMurray last night, I, more fortunate, sat down in the PCL Studio Theatre in Old Strathcona to experience Northern Light Theatre/Good Women Dance Collective’s co- production of Humphrey Bower’s Wish (based on Peter Goldsworthy’s novel of the same name). I won’t go deeply into the production – Jenna Marynowski has already done that in her usual expert way. I will get into some of the questions raised by Jenna but my take is perhaps a little different.
To be clear: Northern Light Theatre/Good Women Dance Collective’s co-production of Wish is beautiful. The performances by the two cast members are brilliant. As Jenna mentions in her review, lighting, sound design, everything, is wonderfully executed. The following is a review of the play-as-text not the play-as-performance.
I’ve not read Goldsworthy’s novel that is the basis of the play. Although a few of my interests are consciousness, animal consciousness, legal issues surrounding animal rights, disabilities and parenting children with disabilities, languages, language learning, species boundaries . . . the list goes on — although I have these interests which are touched on by the play, I don’t think I’ll be running to read Goldsworthy’s novel. If the play is any indication, the novel is a didactic conflation of Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” and Shaw’s Pygmalion with a gorilla playing Eliza and a trial for bestiality replacing the Ambassador’s garden party. I don’t object to the lifting of plots: I have a habit of lifting structure from Homer or Aeschylus when I get around to writing creatively. Virgil, of course, lifted both the Odyssey and the Iliad when he slapped together the Aeneid.
No. What I am uncomfortable with about Wish is that the didacticism that has been imposed on structures borrowed from already didactic works has a sledgehammer clumsiness more baldly preachy even than anything Steinbeck produced at his height. And it’s a sledge hammer that finally manages to hit no nail on the head. In Wish (the play) we are led by the hand through issues: disabled-as-outsider; disabled parenting; parenting the disabled; animal rights; species boundaries; animal consciousness; language; the nature of Nature; and so on. Early on J. J. (Christopher Schultz) talks of Signing coming “naturally” to him and that water is his “natural” element. But, signing actually isolates him, and the ocean would quite indifferently drown him. “Natural” is not, to use the language of the play, a sign that is necessarily made with the “good hand”. In the end, where does Wish leave us? Where we probably all should have been before we saw the play: in a world of shades of ethical grey. In a world in which simply living, however simply we live, has an impact on Nature. If you live in a black and white world, “Wish” may discomfit you. What starts out feeling like a wordy ad for PETA veganism becomes for a moment a poster for species-apartheid before resolving into : “The needs of the many sometimes outweigh the needs of the few except when they don’t — oh and, the individual counts for something. Most of the time. Maybe. And wishes, too.”
I might still have been able to accept and even enjoy the over-the-top but ultimately aimless didacticism of the play if not for my crashing inability to suspend my disbelief when it came to the character of Eliza, the gorilla. This persistent disbelief has nothing to do with Ainsley Hillyard’s marvellous uncostumed performance. Remember “Elephant Man”? The stage play, not the film, in which the titular character’s deformities where portrayed by skill rather than prosthetics? This is the sort of skill Hillyard brings to the roll of Eliza, and her movements are convincingly gorilla-like. What I had trouble with was Eliza’s character as written. I simply could not imagine that a gorilla, no matter how isolated from peers, could develop into the too-human personality that the text gives her. If Hillyard were portraying a Bonobo I might have had an easier time.
I don’t feel I walked out of Wish with any clear answers or even any clear questions. For a play which seems so clearly intended to teach, I can’t help but see that as a failing.
Wish is playing at the PCL Studio Theatre, until May 7.Go see it for the marvellous performances and to support local live-theatre.
PS: I chuckled a bit at the doctor’s repeated correction of “monkey” to “ape” – a little bit of fun I have when talking to fluently anglo-franco billingual people is to ask them,
What’s French for “monkey”?
“Singe” they imediately reply.
What’s the word for “ape”?
Invariably they pause and visibly startle before saying with a mixture of amusement and perplexiry: “singe.”
Wish certainly gets right the power of language to affect thought and concept.