This year’s winners of the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival’s playwriting competition in the Acting Out category are Greg Everett (Carrion Birds) and Alex Pannier (Casualties). Everett and Pannier’s one-act plays are running as a double bill at the University of New Brunswick’s Memorial Hall until August 4th. Carrion Birds and Casualties are being presented as workshopped productions.
Directed by Robbie Lynn, Everett’s Carrion Birds is set along the Tobique River Valley where Rona (Kat Hall) and her uncle Corbin (Ryan Griffith) live and work in solitude. The relationship between Rona and Corbin is tense, to say the least. Rona resents living with Corbin who demands a lot of her. She would leave if it were not for her birthright — the land Rona’s grandfather poured (someone else’s) blood and sweat into hundred years ago. Birthright or not, Corbin needs to know Rona deserves to inherit the land, that she is willing to sacrifice just as he has.
When a shale gas surveyor (Kyle Bech) trespasses on their land, Rona and Corbin act quickly to make sure he doesn’t tell anyone about their whereabouts. The surveyor, blindfolded and tied up, soon finds himself involved in a dark and deadly ritual.
The play is set in rural New Brunswick, so what else could the personal conflict really be about than what it means to live a good life? Right, it’s not just that Rona hates taking orders from Corbin. Corbin despises his brother — Rona’s father — for abandoning their land for the suburbs and only returning whenever he thought he could make money off the property. And the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, because Rona perks up when the surveyor suggests he may have found something on their land. Of course, Corbin didn’t lose an arm — which has been replaced by a crow’s arm (credited to Kyle Brewer) — just so his niece could spit on the family legacy. For Corbin, he would rather lose his arm all over again than work under someone and live in a home he doesn’t truly own.
To spice up familiar territory, Everett has thrown in some supernatural elements, among which is a ghost story that’s closer to truth than fiction.
Still, Everett’s Carrion Birds feels better suited for a collection of short stories than the stage; It’s something you would read in the late hours of the night.
Lynn’s direction sees the play move at a brisk pace, evading much emotional complexity along the way. The performances are loud with meaningful or thoughtful pauses seldom appearing — too bad considering the themes of Everett’s drama. So, the ideas move, but they don’t necessarily connect.
Hall and Griffith do a fine job convincing us that neither Rona or Corbin would be a welcome sight out alone in the woods. Griffith delivers a fanatical, lyrical intensity while Hall’s Rona is dangerously mischievous and cunning. Kudos to Bech for the physicality of his role (at one point he’s thrown to the ground by Hall), he sells it well.
The set features big logs of wood downstage left and three screens upstage where video projection (crow painting by Darshini Moonesawmy; video editing by Gavin Alexander Reid) displays crows on branches. The video projection adds a nice touch of dramatic flair to the woodland scenery.
Directed by Jean-Michel Cliche, Alex Pannier’s Casualties sees siblings Andrew (Lucas Tapley) and Elaine (Sharisse LeBrun) thrown back and forth in time by memories of their painful childhood. Addicted to pills and alcohol, Elaine and Andrew’s parents are the absently present. Neither adult is capable of responsibility, nor are they able to see the consequences of their behaviour. Elaine and Andrew are left to fend for themselves, leading to a strained relationship between brother and sister.
Pannier’s play brings to mind the Philip Larkin poem “This Be The Verse” where Larkin tells us plainly in the first line “they fuck you up, your mum and dad.”
Following Elaine and Andrew closely on their journey through memory is a Monster (Alex Fullerton, wearing a mask that could belong to a killer clown) who sometimes represents addiction and anger and other times the family relative who sexually abused both of them.
Casualties is a brutally honest exploration of abuse and emotional fallout. And it is wonderfully directed by Cliche who translates the vulnerability of Pannier’s writing to the stage with great care.
Part of what makes Casualties an exciting, yet purposeful production is the measured theatricality of Cliche’s direction. To portray the parents, LeBrun and Tapley wear masks that are stylistically similar to those found in commedia dell’arte. The actors, upon donning these masks, become almost manic with big, exaggerated movements and heightened voices; it’s a collision between tragedy and comedy, but no one’s laughing. So while mom gets tangled up in the phone cord, LeBrun’s Elaine is trying to find some way to release the pain she feels inside. Cliche gives these harsh character moments time to breathe before the clowning starts up again.
With the Monster, Cliche has him behave as a puppet master, pulling the family’s strings. Fullerton’s Monster moves in a taunting manner, as if taking pleasure in watching the family fall apart. He is an ominous presence on the stage.
The set is clean and accommodating of movement. In the center, there is a large bed, with a white and black wall behind it that looks like a QR code. Downstage on both sides are big wooden cubes with an E and A written on them, respectively. The sides of the cubes have key images from Elaine and Andrew’s childhood.
LeBrun and Tapley, who can really turn on a dime emotionally and physically, make a fantastic pairing.
The final minutes of Casualties are chilling. While Elaine and Andrew wonder if they will turn out like their parents (“what will I be?”), the actors walk slowly to the bed, put on their masks, and sit up in bed looking out into the audience. It’s a frightening transition that says so much about how children can be affected by trauma.
Carrion Birds by Greg Everett and Alex Pannier’s Casualties run August 2 – 4 at the University of New Brunswick’s Memorial, as part of the 2018 NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival.
For more information about the festival, visit: https://nbacts.com/