NotaBle Acts Summer Theatre Festival
Many Frederictonians interested in theatre have been looking forward to a new Len Falkenstein play for some time; our last fix was two years ago, with Doppelgänger, his remarkably prescient exploration of what might count as torture and who might be doing it and why. The new play, Futures, has been in the works for some time. Taking as its central theme global heating and our responses to it, it's been performed and then restructured to respond to the growth in concern for this issue in the media; in its current incarnation it's one of the two main plays at this summer's NotaBle Acts Summer Theatre Festival.
As always, this Falkenstein play is about something: it's a play which expects -- no, insists -- that its audience be alert and informed; and also, it's a play that's committed to a position. At its center is a clever pun: as we make decisions in our society, we're choosing among futures, of course, but central here is the concept of a market in futures -- not just in pork bellies or light sweet crude, but in terrorist attacks and environmental catastrophes. Betting that there will be a terrorist attack or an environmental catastrophe is, of course, a form of insurance, and to some extent we all do it (that's why we take out life insurance: if we win the bet, we're dead but our beneficiaries get something out of it; if we lose, we're still alive). In this play, one of the central issues is that Jimmy bets, on the futures board, that there will be a terrorist attack, in order to get money for medical attention for his daughter (a laudable motive if there ever was one), and then, in a position to warn about the attack, doesn't. The consequence is that Hannah, who is a scientist about to reveal a plan for saving the planet by retrieving carbon out of the atmosphere, is killed and the plan is lost, presumably forever. Neither, of course, is very plausible, but they form a kind of surreal metaphor for our usual attitude toward saving the planet, which is to look first at how things will affect us (at one point a frenetic Fox-news style newscast asks, urgently, ""How will the melting of Greenland affect YOUR community? Stay tuned!"
This central event is, as usual, embedded in an imaginative and theatrically challenging production, which also demands that we keep our wits about us, and don't miss fairly subtle connections (for instance, the compelling opening sequence, in darkness with LED lights on people's foreheads and in their hands under a surtitle saying "Archaeology" establishes a nightmare atmosphere which at first makes no sense until we connect it with later similar dream sequences and realize that Jimmy and other characters are all occasionally (or, perhaps, always) caught in various dreamworlds. Recurring news broadcasts are fragmented and broken up among the four actors, choreographed and tightly timed, rather as though we were channel surfing and seeing the same news event reported in different voices. A number of scenes involve UN-style simultaneous translators behind the scenes at the play's climactic international conference, reinforcing yet again the view that huge global questions sometimes are at the mercy of individual, short term goals and decisions (will the English translators agree to do free overtime to continue the conference, or will the world expire because free cookies aren't enough of an incentive?) The play is an example of what a friend of mine once called "bludgeon-school satire," and if you think an appropriate response to a planet on which the "developed world" says it's too expensive to cut carbon emissions enough to keep us all from catastrophe, and the "underdeveloped world" says, ok, but not until after we're developed, is a raucous laugh -- well, this script is right up your alley.
The set is composed of three weirdly unidentifiable objects which move about and which people use as lecterns, chairs, objects to hide behind, and so forth. Lighting is complicated and quick, following characters about and pinning them in overhead spots for monologues, while behind them surtitles and ironic projections help us understand what's going on. An insistent offstage guitar meditates behind the action, adding a note of foreboding or a moment of impetus and anticipation. All this, of course, represents once again the necessity of turning the constraints of a fringe-festival style touring show into advantages.
For the production, Falkenstein has assembled about as strong a cast as you could find in Fredericton. All four actors play a central character and a range of peripheral bit parts, like nightmare archaeologists, news commentators, translators, etc. Scott Shannon, with his usual compelling stage presence, plays the hapless Jimmy, who works tracking "chatter" on the internet for a scary outfit called something like the North American Homeland Security Perimeter; his boss, played with astonishing, self-confident, arrogant condescension by Nicholas Cole, makes it clear why Jimmy and his attention to internet chatter are utterly unimportant. Matt Spinney, another veteran of many Falkenstein productions, plays the terrorist "Commandante David" of the Gaia Protection Force (the only terrorist group, we're told, who leave no carbon footprint: their bombs are totally organic) with his trademark combination of bluster and vulnerability. And Marissa Robinson plays the implausible nano-scientist, Hannah, with astonishing confidence and self-certainty. All move quickly and authoritatively from role to role, and place to place; the choreography of their movements is tight and professional.
And yet, on opening night at least, the production showed some loose ends and roughness. All four actors, for example, often swallowed their lines, perhaps as though thinking that the Playhouse's workshop space is even more intimate than it is. Structurally, the script's exposition seemed to go on a bit long, postponing our engagement with the central characters and their problems in favor of a laying down of an intellectual and social framework: I started looking for continuity, for connection with characters having motives that link scenes together, somewhat before I got much. Some of that exposition was not as clear as I thought it could have been -- it wasn't obvious, for instance, just how what the futures market that people are playing actually does and how it works. Mechanically, the momentum was sometimes held back by slightly too-long intervals between scenes, by an obvious moving of props around and getting set for the next one. Again, some of this may be addressed in later performances, as the company settles into the shape of the show. It wasn't clear to me exactly what the role of the musical background was: the offstage guitar was silent at some points, and engaged in the scene at others; dominant and even intrusive at some moments and imperceptible at others. Many of Falkenstein's plays have used music to powerful effect, but often by including the musician on stage rather than hiding the source in the shadows, and I wondered if that might not have been possible here.
Such shows, like most of the work we see at the NBActs festival, are works in progress, and the potential of this one seems to me greater than what the small opening night audience saw. I expect the play will grow and deepen in performance, and I hope I have a chance to see it again, as its growth continues (as I often have with other Falkenstein fringe-festival productions). Even with those qualifications, this one is eminently worth seeing: be prepared to think hard, though.