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Art imitates life in journalist's verbatim stage play

Verbatim play tackles Experimental Lakes dispute

Reporters are generally uncomfortable when their own first-person experiences start to bleed into the third-person narratives they're creating.

That is evidently not the case with journalist-playwright Annabel Soutar of the Montreal theatre company Porte Parole when it came to her play The Watershed.

Like her work Seeds (seen last year at Prairie Theatre Exchange), the two-hour-and-45-minute opus (including intermission) is a verbatim play, in which the dialogue has been transcribed from real interviews, or real life.

By necessity, Soutar inserted herself into Seeds on occasion in a necessary acknowledgment that the story of Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser's battle with agri-giant Monsanto did not happen in a vacuum. The character of Annabel Soutar was duly seen arranging and conducting interviews, and also interjecting here and there to helpfully correct any inaccurate or misleading statement uttered by a character.

Soutar promotes herself to the harried heroine of The Watershed, a work that examines the issue of water stewardship. It centres on the dispute that arose when Stephen Harper's Conservative government pulled the plug on the Experimental Lakes Area project in 2013, a decision that appeared to be motivated by sheer spite rather than conscientious cost-cutting, especially given the world-class research being conducted there.

Soutar's expanded role, encompassing her husband, her two daughters and her parents, should not be considered a vanity move. The issue is one of posterity. In a world facing many scary crises due to climate change, Soutar is simply offering herself up to provide a vital sense of context as a parent deeply concerned with the environmental/economic legacy we will leave our children.

The two-hour-and-45-minute opus (including intermission) is a verbatim play, in which the dialogue has been transcribed from real interviews, or real life. (Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

The two-hour-and-45-minute opus (including intermission) is a verbatim play, in which the dialogue has been transcribed from real interviews, or real life. (Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press)

Soutar (Liisa Repo-Martell, once Ophelia to Keanu Reeves's Hamlet at Royal MTC some years ago) has booked a commission by the 2015 Pan Am Games to do a work on the subject of water resources.

To that end, we see her arrange a visit by a plumber to educate her two daughters as to how water gets to their house. Once Soutar hears of the imminent closure of the Experimental Lakes Area, she uncovers a tangled system of conflicting agendas, where access to safe water bumps up against the voracious needs of the oil industry, and the benign pursuits of science crash against the rocks of political expediency.

The second act, which details a Montreal-to-Alberta road trip with Soutar's family, feels like a distraction — as if an earnest eco-documentary has been interrupted by a PG-rated road comedy. It takes a while before it gets back on track, but it's a credit to director Chris Abraham of Toronto's Crow's Theatre that we stick with it. As he did with Seeds, Abraham sets an urgent pace for the eight actors on stage, most of them playing multiple roles. (One can't help admire the way Abraham portrays himself as a character, an artistic director of a theatre company who comes to the unnerving realization that federal funding for his own organization is in the hands of a political party with a penchant for payback.)

The cast is superb. Bruce Dinsmore plays multiple roles, but he is especially funny as former PM Harper, a man who tried to present as a non-threatening authority figure but always radiated as being somehow... off. Eric Peterson also plays multiple roles, including a bombastic Fox News anchor and a water scientist whose unfiltered candour on the subject of the oil sands may have turned the Harper government in vengeful mode. He is especially affecting as Soutar's Tory father, respectfully trying to make his liberal daughter understand the conservative viewpoint without a hint of anger or condescension. (It's an especially civilized pleasure to witness this dialogue in an age of puerile "libtard" name-calling.)

Molly Kidder is also notable in her multiple roles, including Soutar's eldest daughter, but she is especially poignant as a student-scientist whose reaction to the ELA closure is one of deeply felt betrayal.

If anyone is cynical enough to think Kidder was stunt-cast because her Peterson happens to be her father, she puts that notion to rest with a combination of emotional availability and consummate skill. She deserves to be on that stage.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca 

Twitter: @FreepKing

Read more by Randall King.

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History

Updated on Thursday, March 16, 2017 at 7:19 AM CDT: Edited

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