Saturday, October 26, 2019


Factory Theatre production

You ever see snails make love?

It's the eve of twins Sugar and Grace Ducharme's 30th birthday and the 10th anniversary of their parents' deaths, the local Scrabble Champ Stripper has gone missing, and mysterious drifter Trout Stanley arrives looking for love...and a lake. Experience the wild, touching, and hysterically funny play that took New York by storm from Governor General's Award-nominated playwright and novelist, Claudia Dey, returning to Factory's Mainspace 14 years after its Toronto premiere at Factory. A story of Northern Proportions, Trout Stanley is about the secrets that bind us and finding love wherever you can. And snails. 

“Trout Stanley is a deliciously lyrical piece of Canadian Gothic” – The New York Times


l-r Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Shakura Dickson, Natasha Mumba

There are significant references, in the director's and playwright's program notes, that reveal the incredible journey that Claudia Dey's acclaimed play Trout Stanley has taken since its premiere at Factory Theatre in 2005. This journey ranges from a German opera production with Trout sporting a floor length beard, to an Edmonton Fringe production as recent as 2013. 

These references/clues also reveal the ways in which this mesmerizing - at times bewildering - play can lend itself to a variety of adaptations. In the current production director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu speaks eloquently of growing "up in BC in the pre-internet 90s era with two sisters in an extremely close knit African immigrant family." She goes on to say that when she first read it the themes in Trout Stanley immediately spoke to her, and "struck a sweet, and deep chord" surrounding issues of "co-dependence , isolation, and the fantasy of finding love in the most unexpected places."

"Working with a cast of all black actors has been a joyous experience in terms of exploring this world, and this language from a first generation African Canadian immigrant lens."

Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu (director's program notes)

All of the elements of this widely known play, from Quill & Quire, to NOW, the National Post, and the New York Times (2006) culminate in a 2019 production that brings a whole new perspective to what past responses have called an example of 'Canadian' - at times 'Yukon' Gothic. 

And Gothic it is, as semi-surrealist dialogue and verbal roller coaster rides through deeply layered metaphoric/symbolic monologues create an intriguing pastiche of sight and sound. The published script does not appear to suggest a 105 minute journey without intermission. The current production tests our bladders and souls by presenting - intermission-less - all these words in an extremely comic, at times harrowing ramble through dysfunction, melancholy, and the sudden intervention of romantic love in the body of Trout himself - a lithe, bearded and delightfully engaging character in search of a climax. 

But this production doesn't really provide one- a climax that is. Instead it delivers a panoply of gorgeous images and a convoluted escape from the 'dump' of life, crafting the overall experience into a frequently puzzling word journey sporting the symbolic absence of a glamorous, scrabble playing, missing woman. In the end this leaves a great deal to the imagination - an imagination that could have been better supported by more visual effects. 

A large collection of figurines crafted by Sugar Ducharme (one of the twins) lines the uppermost regions of the set and is enhanced by moments of very focused lighting, achieving some of the fraught symbolism that the play hinges upon. This sculpted element suggests an absent cast of back-story characters that have simultaneously embraced and ignored the art and the presence of these co-dependent siblings - ostracized and traumatized by life events and community detachment.
Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, as Trout, takes on a manic, endearing quality as they deftly love & leap, with great physical agility, bringing vibrance and depth to the title character. Shakura Dickson and Natasha Mumba, as the extremely non-identical twins, match their beautiful, initially interloping 'house guest's' physicality and tragicomic emotional investment with great nuance and engaging, sisterly camaraderie. 

And yet the overall pacing of a layered mise en scene seems off as breakneck vocal pacing, sets, direction, costumes, and lighting tend to over-excitedly blur it all into a lack of aesthetic focus for a script that hungers for visual delineation and sharply conceived emotional clarity. The combination of quickly delivered, hard to follow monologues, set within a  beautiful and very naturalistic room (unlike past sets that have skewed the playing space and suggested surreal'ish qualities at the outset) tends to overshadow the performances at times. This allows the dramaturgy precious little time to breathe within as it becomes somewhat scrambled, rendering many of the essential words and phases a melange of unclear language. Dey's language may be served better by a more expressionistic performing area, slightly slower pacing, and focused spots of light for specific speeches and interchanges, as well as a crucial, perhaps Lawren Harris 'ish  faux/true north strong, free graphic quality  - chaotic, detached, and looming over the action in a way the suggests the intense colonizing forces that fictitious 'national' images (i.e. Group of Seven) have had us labor under for decades - and decades and decades. 

As it stands, lone faux evergreens peek into the sides of interior domesticity and never really address the frequently wild isolation of the north that the theatrical environment truly needs in order to come across as deeply co-dependent, fantastical  and isolating - all of the qualities the director has tried to find, with varying success, in the current production.  

Gothic needs to be haunting, but this production of Trout Stanley, although at times comic, poignant, always energetic, and often highly intriguing, never reaches the eerie, haunted climax of language and visual presentation that the narrative insinuates. More high pitched gothic elements  might allow the text to shine brighter within what begins as an engaging domestic dramedy trapped in the semi-wilderness, and ends as a somewhat unfulfilling escape from unspecified chaos and magically surreal, somewhat bewilderingly alarming familial dysfunction. Like a run-on sentence of strangely unraveling cultural cacophony and pseudo-decolonizing campy'ish critique.

And yet, ultimately, the opportunity to see a production of a 'Canadian' play that continues to be thought provoking, acclaimed, and currently produced with a keen eye for diversity within a vast country that continues to hunger for that mythical national identity, is well worth witnessing. 

In any incarnation, the text of Trout Stanley must attest to the surreal, at times terrifying, and darkly funny experience a considerable number of Canadians - north south east and west - have come to know, to understand, to under-identify, and to underestimate.


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