I don’t get to much theatre in Toronto because the Mirvish Universe of Broadway musicals doesn’t interest me, and as a recovering poet, I have a sharp distaste for scenery-chewing of any kind. I guess that’s why the Toronto Fringe Festival has never quite gotten my attention, along with the obvious fact that Toronto takes the Fringe so much less seriously than the rest of the country. I’m aware that the Fringe has served as a breeding ground for playwrights, actors and stage technologists in other parts of the country, many of whom have gone on to work in film and television where they can be seen by non-theatre folks in the same way that poets occasionally turn over and write about things that other people actually want to know about . In a very real sense, the Fringe Festivals are among the few cultural zones where Canadians learn to make more with less, and that’s a skill that we’re going to need more and more as culture moves increasingly to the kind of narrowcasting we’re in the early phases of right now.
Toronto’s interpretation of the Fringe, not surprisingly given that the city is the most “diverse” in the country, has increasingly leaned toward serving the vast marketplace for correctness, or (spinning around the wheel 180 degrees) an almost-as-vast range of rude self-expression, or the flaunting of off-the-wall navel lint. I don’t want to single out any performers from this year’s venues because a quick look at the roster of presenters will argue my case more convincingly than I could with an itemization.
So when I was dragged, more than a little reluctantly, to the showing of Spiral Dive at the St. Vladimir venue on Spadina just south of Harbord on Tuesday, I wasn’t expecting to have a good time. I went because the playwright is an old collaborator of mine, Ken Brown, who’s been the principal spirit behind a small, uncompromising company called TheatrePublic in Edmonton for the last 20 years. Brown is best known for creating the long-running one-man show Life After Hockey, and quite a lot less famous for mounting, at the Edmonton Fringe in the summer of 1990, a one-man version of my 1986 book, Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow. His version of Cambodia was fairly well-received, and I cheerfully soaked up most of the credit for it. But it didn’t go anywhere because the next spring Brown turned it into a wildly innovative multi-staged multimedia refiguring of the book, this time called The Cambodia Pavilion that not only translated the multiple focuses of the book’s structure successfully, it managed to present them more or less simultaneously — a feat I honestly didn’t think could be done. It was also so costly to mount that Brown had to remortgage his house, and ended up nearly losing it when several tut-tutting Edmonton critics decided that The Cambodia Pavilion was precisely what it set out to be: an assault on both the formalities and limited subject matter of stage drama — not to mention the human sensorium.
Spiral Dive, which Brown has written and directed, features three young and startlingly gifted Edmonton actors we’re likely to hear a lot more from in the coming years — and the relatively simple stage dictated by the Fringe’s limits. But like his interpretation of Cambodia, its intentions are anything but simple. The Spiral Dive presented at this year’s Ottawa and Toronto Fringe festivals is episode one of a trilogy about Canadian Spitfire pilot Jack Harding. Spiral Dive: Episode Two will be performed at the Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Edmonton festivals later this summer.
Unlike too much of the Fringe fare, Spiral Dive is neither self-expressive nor self-promotional. It is a series of layered stories about Canada, the early, thrilling days of aviation, and about how cheap and urgent life became during the Second World War. Beyond that the play is about the human condition that binds all of us together in time and space despite the lack of curiosity that currently characterizes our cultural life in this country.
Now, I’m fairly well known for falling asleep at the theatre when I do go. Worse, people who’ve sat next to me are usually grateful when I do fall asleep because I don’t suspend disbelief willingly, and that frequently makes me a groaning heckler before I drift off. I’m happy to report that I was forced completely out of character while I watched Spiral Dive. Brown’s stories hooked me within the first ten minutes, and I remained alert for the performance’s full 90 minutes as the narrative tracks sifted over and through one another.
I was initially taken by the acting of Bryan Webb, who plays Jack Harding’s childhood pal David, along with a half-dozen other bridging roles. In the character of David, Webb makes no secret of being dead, the victim of a German torpedoing of the minesweeper on which he served. Webb is the kind of actor who is fun to watch in any role, and his ability to morph from one character to the next was effortless and without seams.
Caley Suliak, who begins as Jack Harding’s Canadian girlfriend, transforms herself into an hilariously-dull but libidinous English milkmaid, and then into Eva, a haunted Polish exile who falls in love with Harding. Suliak is an actor whose range sneaks up on you. She’s particularly strong as Eva, and that’s no small feat, given that she’s perfectly believable in her other roles, and along with Webb, also acts as a kind of witnessing chorus for the action.
Blake Turner, in the single role of pilot Jack Harding, has a less-demanding job, at least on the surface. He’s able to create Jack as a nuanced and not-completely sympathetic figure, and that’s part of what makes the play interesting. You find yourself wondering how, given his combination of stumble-bum naivete and brashness, he gets to survive and not his friend David, and that raises the issue of whether, given that there are two episodes of the play to come, he’s going to make it. It’s the sort of suspense that normally requires a much more elaborate canvas to create.
But if Brown has been skilled at selecting actors for his production, the primary energy comes from the materials he’s given them to work with. Brown has a long-standing interest in aviation, and part of his research was learning to fly planes himself. I’ve always known that he’s an exhaustive researcher, and he’s done his work here with clear relish and the attention to detail he’s known for. What I’d forgotten about him — or maybe I never really understood this at all — is that he’s a brilliant writer and story-teller. What I’m saying is that you don’t need to be a World War II buff to get Spiral Dive, and you don’t need to know anything about Spitfires or about aviation. He gives you stories that are fully realized, infused with emotions and ideas that are fully contemporary, and moves you to care about his characters and where they’re going. He even succeeds in making you experience aerial combat with Jack Harding — no minor feat on a 20 foot stage with few props.
Is Spiral Dive worth your time? Absolutely. The best testimony I can offer on that is my first question when I ran into Brown after the performance: “What happens next?”
That’s high praise, and Toronto can only hope he can be talked into returning to next year’s Fringe to give us the answer. In the meantime, get your ass to one of the remaining performances of Episode One. They’re at St. Vladimir Friday 5:45 PM and Saturday 10:30 PM.
If you’re out and about the country this summer, Episode Two will be performed in Winnipeg July 16-25th, Saskatoon July 28-August 7, and at the Edmonton Fringe August 13-23.
Toronto, July 9, 2009, 1309 w.