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Edge of the Stage

‘Diplomacy’ from Vancouver’s hot political theatre scene.

By Shannon Rupp 10 Nov 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a regular contributor to The Tyee.

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'Diplomacy' from Vancouver's hot political theatre scene.

When playwright Tim Carlson and director Richard Wolfe talk about the kind of work that appeals to their two-man company Western Theatre Conspiracy, it's all the stuff of social and political ideas.

"When I think of Clifford Odets...," Wolfe begins, in his earnest, soft-spoken voice, but I'm afraid my mind wanders. Does the average theatre-goer even recall the name of the influential American socialist playwright and activist who made his mark in the 1930s in the New York-based Group Theatre? He mounted intellectual plays that excoriated the economic system that had led to the Depression and his work found favour with left-leaning audiences. Well, perhaps there are those who remember him as the bastard who broke actress Frances Farmer's heart and triggered her descent into madness in Jessica Lange's 1982 bio-pic Frances?

And therein lies their challenge: Carlson and Wolfe are trying to deliver a theatre of ideas in a era in which trivial observations about celebrity are more in tune with general tastes.

Just as ambitious, they are helping to resurrect Vancouver's reputation for edgy theatre built in the 1970s by companies like Tamahnous and Touchstone. Western Theatre Conspiracy is part of the new wave of Vancouver small theatre groups producing challenging, political and unconventional work. Their varied efforts can be sampled today and Saturday (Nov 10 and 11) at HIVE a party where Western Theatre Conspiracy and ten other local companies billing themselves as the city's "most adventurous," perform a collection of 10-minute plays. Drink-in-hand, small audiences move from show to show to catch the tiny gems offered by Leaky Heaven Circus, Radix, and Boca del Lupo, among others.

'Diplomacy' on stage

Western Theater Conspiracy's latest full-length play, Diplomacy, penned by Carlson and directed by Wolfe, examines Canadians' ambiguous feelings about war. The piece addresses what Carlson believes will be the most important part of the national debate: where Canada stands on the world stage.

As a former journalist, it's not that Carlson has any illusions about the impact of modern theatre on the public debate. His play is now showing at the Vancouver Cultural Centre, a house than can accommodate only about 200.

Carlson compares running a small theatre company to being in an indie band. "Every session is the next CD, and they go out and work their asses off playing for 100 or maybe 200 people – and that's success," he says. "I don't know how important or influential any play can be. But working with people that are passionate and using the tension that is in any political discussion to make theatre – that's enough for me."

With his disheveled dark hair, shadow of a beard, and black-framed glasses Carlson might well pass for the sort of rebellious intellectual guy given to playing in independent bands. He's nicely complemented by Wolfe, a former actor-turned-director, who plays the part of the deceptively clean-cut, well-groomed guy you also find in those bands. The one whose references to marketing and ticket "price points" hides his interest in subversive ideas. The quote tagging his e-mails, comes from dissident Czech playwright Vaclav Havel who went on to be the country's president: "Theatre should always be somewhat suspect."

Discomfort zone

Chatting the afternoon before Diplomacy opens, Wolfe and Carlson discuss how they see small theatres as one of the last places where controversial views and ideas can be expressed publicly.

"Audiences can hear voices that might have things to say that are interesting but can't be heard on the radio, or in newspapers, because you can't say certain things in public," Carlson says.

Wolfe picks up on the idea, recalling the origins of classical theatre, where the stage functioned as a place in which society could work out its challenges. "If everyone is comfortable with everything that's going on [in a play] then it isn't doing as much as is could to spark discussion."

As Diplomacy opens, audiences are dropped, abruptly, into the story of Roy (played by Keith Martin Gordey) a Vietnam war deserter whose pacifist enthusiasm led him to become a Canadian history professor and an authority on Nobel peace-prize winning prime minister, Lester B. Pearson. Roy is distraught over the suicide of his wife, a Vietnamese refugee who also found her way to Canada, and spent her life as an anti-war activist. The cast includes an aging-but-still idealistic TV reporter (John Innes) Roy's diplomat daughter (Khaira Ledeyo) and a student (Josh Dixon) who objects to Roy's growing sympathy for the American war on terror.

The play was inspired in 2003 when Carlson, a news junkie, noticed the similarities between Pearson's defiance of the Americans during their last, disastrous foreign invasion, and Chretien's resistance to Bush's Iraq invasion. Carlson thought there was something quintessentially Canadian about the way the country's leaders maintained their commitment to the 20th-century "middle-power" role as diplomats.

"It reminded me of that famous incident (in 1964) when Pearson gave a speech in Philadelphia calling for an end to the bombing in North Vietnam. And [then president Lyndon] Johnson warned him not to "come into my home and piss on my carpet," Carlson says, before offering a half-smile. "Well, it famous to people who are interested in history.

According to Carlson, he was trying to write a piece that sketches the complexities of this dispute and underlines what he believes is the attempt by Bush, Harper, and the military to whip up public fear.

American cartoons

But on the boards, the piece lacks the subtlety and nuance necessary to make us even consider that the Americans and their supporters may have a point. Carlson mentions a fondness for playwright David Mamet's work so it's hard not to contrast Diplomacy with Mamet's masterpiece of balance about sexual harassment in universities, Oleanna. Or even Mamet's foray into war in the minor TV hit, The Unit, about one of those black-ops units that crosses the ethical lines for all the best of reasons.

Diplomacy is certainly thought-provoking, although not perhaps in the way the WTC duo intended. It doesn't present conflicting views of Canada's resistance to the war on terror. It doesn't even offer-up the pragmatic Albertan view, which is that Canada ought to support the invasion because of the fat contracts to be had come reconstruction time for Canadian companies in the oil-and-gas sector.

As the talk-y play progresses, Roy reverts to his American roots and deteriorates into madness – a gun-waving, red state loon, spouting terms like "Islamofascist" – it's hard not to see him as a cartoon. The American view is dismissed as insane which, come to think of it, is how many of us characterize it in dinner conversation about world politics.

Watching Diplomacy, what crossed my mind was a complaint I often hear from a pal who was transplanted from Minnesota. "Canadians despise Americans," he says, pointing out that for all our lack of Yankee-style patriotism, we have a sense of nationalism deeply rooted in a sense of our own moral superiority.

During the interview, Carlson says his play questions this very smugness. Maybe that was his intention. But the result is far more one-sided.

Perhaps that can be attributed to the difference between when the play was inspired three years ago, and now. Harper's lickspittle leadership has dragged a nation that prides itself on peacekeeping into a war, which may just demand a louder voice of dissent.

Wolf among Canadian lambs

In discussing his approach to directing, Wolfe says he tries not to get in the way of the text. He sees this piece, and all the contemporary works he directs, as an artist speaking directly to his audience and he tries not to censor that voice. No doubt the portrayal of Roy – which suggests an American wolf in Canadian-clothing – does reflect the way a lot of Canadians feel about the Conservatives, who are busily dismantling the country's reputation for Diplomacy.

But whatever the flaws in Diplomacy as a piece of theatre, the 10-year-old company has been having a string of successes. Carlson's 2004 play, Omniscience, got six Jessie nominations including ones for best production and best direction and is scheduled for a reading in Berlin's Maxim Gorki theatre this season, and a full production in Portugal. Last season's A Skull in Connemara (written by Martin McDonagh) picked up five Jessie nominations and two wins.

And as a result, an increasingly edgy Vancouver theatre scene is that much sharper.

Diplomacy runs at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, at 8 p.m., until Saturday November 11.  [Tyee]

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