Returning this year to the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival is Patrick Toner’s Grace Notes. Grace Notes was first presented last summer as part of NotaBle Act’s Play Out Loud series, where new plays in development are given public readings. Audiences can catch Grace Notes at St. Thomas University’s Black Box Theatre, July 26-29.
Directed by Clarissa Hurley, Grace Notes tells the story of Sergeant Grace Neil (Leah Holder), a recently demoted member of the military police. She is given the ‘easy’ assignment of Junior Pipe Band Instructor in the Territories. The band is comprised of young Tribe followers. There is a deep mistrust by the West towards those who follow the religious teachings of Tribe, with Tribe being unable to fly on airplanes as just one example.
There, in the Territories, Grace is reunited with her sister Magda (Caroline Coon). She also becomes acquainted with Solomon (Warren Macaulay), the pipe band’s drum major. Solomon is a Tribe activist guided by dangerous ambition. He pressures Grace to question the truth of everything the West has told her, and many others like her, about Tribe. Grace eventually opens herself to Tribe teachings as she becomes more involved with life (and Solomon) in the Territories.
A lot is broken in this world that Toner has crafted, with clear inspiration from the state of global affairs today. Solomon carries the weight of a traumatic childhood, memories of occupation. What motivates the character to push towards despicable acts is the immutable narrative that has emerged from the Territories. Solomon is frustrated by the fact that nothing has changed, only worsened. There are drones now that fly overhead and are capable of massive destruction. And the local people have become accustomed to air raids, heading into underground shelters when the sirens blare. The possibility for peace through diplomacy has long been ruined for Solomon; violence begets violence.
Grace Notes offers its audience interesting commentary not only about the world at broad, but also the treatment of ‘others’. One of such key moments is when Captain Boisclair (Joel Diamond) informs Grace that her pipe band has been invited to play in the West. Grace recognizes the invitation for what it is: propaganda. It is a clear demonstration of the way in which (typically) marginalized groups of people are used by institutions to publicly convey and reaffirm their values, then are discarded and forgotten once their temporary purpose has been fulfilled.
On a similar note: given the real-world parallels here, kudos to Hurley for not attempting to play up the ‘foreigness’ of the Tribe characters.
Toner’s ambitious scope is certainly worthy of praise, but it is too bad that the characters are underdeveloped. More could be done to explore and reveal the struggle of these characters trapped at the mercy of powers beyond them. And it is frustrating when there are glimpses of where Toner might peel away layers only for him to rush through the emotions and move onto the larger story at play. (Toner should consider expanding the play into two-acts). Imagery of bagpipes and food steal focus from characters in a play stuck on a higher metaphorical level.
Thankfully, the production is gifted with a talented cast that help enrich the human factor of Toner’s play. Holder expresses her character’s shifting loyalty through subtle movements that speak volumes. She really has that capacity to take a character through an emotional arc. Macaulay’s back and forths with Holder’s Grace are fascinating to watch. He is a great antagonist with his ability to make words creep and crawl, planting seeds of doubt along the way. Holder and Macaulay are a strong pairing. A recent graduate from Brock University’s Dramatic Arts program, Coon brings a subdued intensity to Magda that she knows how to use to its fullest effect. So, it is a shame that there is not more Magda (see paragraph above) in the script because Coon shows promising range. (And what a singing voice!) The same can be said for Diamond who really only gets to play towards the end, where he’s not delivering exposition. Devin Luke plays the minor role of a lawyer, a character put in to help advance and frame the plot.
Back to Hurley’s direction, she manages very well with the numerous scene jumps that take the audience to different locales in the past, the future, and the present. The actors travel across the stage fluidly and with clear intentions that help establish space. There could be some restraint on animated projection images in the background (ex: grainy aerial footage) since the detailed play-by-play from the characters stand on their own.
Mike Johnston’s set design is very conscious of the demands of the play. As a result, the set pieces are mobile and dynamic. In one scene, the set pieces are used as bus seats; the next, they form a wall and the entrance to an underground shelter. Chris Saad’s lighting work in the play’s final moments make for an exciting conclusion. There is effective sound design by Mike Doherty who delivers a robust sound for the action sequences. Costume designer Sherry Kinnear gives Macaulay a military jacket that has strong hints of ‘revolutionary’, very fitting for his character’s appetite for justice – justice as he defines it.
Grace Notes is relevant today in a world where our collective future grows more and more uncertain everyday. Although thought-provoking, the play struggles to bring together its big ideas in a way that connects on a deeper, more personal level.
Patrick Toner’s Grace Notes runs July 26 – 29 at the Black Box Theatre, 7:30PM nightly.
For more information about the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival, including tickets and the complete schedule: https://nbacts.com/the-festival/