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Asking hard questions about doing hard time

'When all the good liberals from Wolseley and River Heights show up for the play... I want him to attack the beliefs and attitudes of the people in the audience' -- Steven Ratzlaff

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If you saw the recent play August: Osage County at the RMTC Warehouse, you'll know Steven Ratzlaff as the tall, lanky actor who played Sharon Bajer's professor husband.

The grey-haired Winnipeg performer is typecast in "suit" roles, such as lawyers, in movies and television. On stage, he radiates intelligence.

So it's not a great surprise to hear that the Alberta-bred Ratzlaff earned a B.A. in philosophy, then an education degree, and taught at Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute for 17 years.

In his mid-30s, he took a leave to earn a theatre degree. Finally, he quit teaching in his mid-40s to pursue acting.

His stage credits have ranged from It's a Wonderful Life at RMTC to Girl in the Goldfish Bowl at Prairie Theatre Exchange and Lenin's Embalmers at Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. Between gigs, he's a house painter.

Now 56 years old, Ratzlaff is an emerging playwright with his first full-length work, Dionysus in Stony Mountain, opening tonight at the Rachel Browne Theatre. The two-actor drama is the season-ending show for Theatre Projects Manitoba.

"I've finally found something to do that pays even less than acting," quips Ratzlaff, who lives in Wolseley with his wife, a health-care administrator.

Ratzlaff has always had a deep interest in 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who referenced the god Dionysus in writing about aggression and dog-eat-dog power struggles.

Dionysus in Stony Mountain had its premiere as a one-act drama at the 2009 Winnipeg Fringe Festival. Ratzlaff starred as a manic prison inmate named James who has gone off his medication.

The character (played by Ross McMillan in the expanded two-act version) has stopped taking his prescribed lithium. He thinks he can heal himself by memorizing Nietzsche (mainly from the book On the Genealogy of Morals) and freeing himself from moral delusions.

The crime James committed is revealed during the play. His court-ordered psychiatrist (Sarah Constible), who sincerely wants to help him obtain parole, matches wits with him in fierce debate.

"What can I do in this situation if I want to live justly? That's really the question she's struggling with," Ratzlaff says.

It's obviously a personal question for the playwright, who comes from a Mennonite background and considers himself Christian, though he isn't a regular churchgoer.

Ratzlaff has spent time inside Stony Mountain Institution, the fortress-like federal prison north of Winnipeg. For several years, he visited inmates as a volunteer with the Mennonite Central Committee's Open Circle program. He was involved, too, in Circles of Support and Accountability, an MCC program that helps ex-offenders. Ratzlaff also taught for a term at the prison.

Drawing on Nietzsche, James unleashes an attack on well-meaning institutions such as correctional systems, welfare systems and hospitals for going to extremes to serve society's weakest and most marginalized, in a way that becomes self-perpetuating even if it's not making progress.

"Look at aboriginal policy," Ratzlaff says. "People complain about the terrible trauma on reserves -- anguish, addiction, despair, violence, lack of opportunity. But that doesn't stop (government) from spending billions and billions of dollars keeping these things going."

Merely questioning the policy is taboo, he adds, but James does it in the play. "You can't talk about what's happening at Stony Mountain without talking about aboriginal policy."

Dionysus in Stony Mountain is deliberately political, raising ideas that may not sit easily with folks who think of themselves as compassionate.

"I don't like plays where the intention is to congratulate the audience on their sensibilities," Ratzlaff says.

"When all the good liberals from Wolseley and River Heights show up for the play, I'm not interested in reinforcing their opinions about the world. . . . When James becomes the voice of Nietzsche attacking liberalism, I want him to attack the beliefs and attitudes of the people in the audience."

Ratzlaff hopes no one will be scared off by the intellectual content. "You don't need to know anything about Nietzsche or philosophy," he says.

He's at work on his next play, a farce called The Mobile Vasectomy Unit that also has moral overtones.

"Someone in government proposes paying $2,000 to young men to have vasectomies as a cost-saving measure," he says. "Then the question is: Where will the mobile vasectomy units go?"

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2012 C1

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Updated on Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 10:50 AM CDT: adds photos, fact boxes

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