Sunday, November 3, 2013

Review: (Montreal) Seeds

(photo via website)
Percy Schmeiser: heroic David or crooked farmer?
Food for thought at the latest incarnation of Seeds
by Sarah Deshaies

Who is Percy Schmeiser?

The septuagenarian canola farmer based in Bruno, Saskatchewan was sued in 1988 by biotech giant Monsanto for illegally growing their patented seeds; his fame (and infamy) grew as he fought back against the company over several years, resulting in a landmark 2004 Supreme Court Decision.

But is Percy Schmeiser a good guy?

“He’s become something of a folk hero in some circles, playing the role of David to Monsanto’s Goliath. He’s often quoted in the press and is a frequent speaker around the world at events hosted by groups opposed to agricultural biotechnology,” reads the company’s corporate website. “The truth is Percy Schmeiser is not a hero.”

But wait - that will be up to you, the audience member, not the media, Monsanto or the legal system - to decide. 

Porte Parole artistic director and Montreal playwright Annabel Soutar decided to put this question in the hands of theatregoers with her hit, acclaimed documentary project, which was named 2005’s Best English Production by the Association québécoise des critiques de théâtre. Now recalibrated and primed for a tour of Canadian stages, Seeds is once again probing our minds over the use and safety of genetically modified organisms.

By poring over volumes of court transcripts, and conducting exhaustive interviews with observers and people closely tied to the case, including Schmeiser, Soutar carefully compiled a documentary-play hybrid about the landmark patent lawsuit. Percy, played by national treasure Eric Peterson (aka the dad from Corner Gas), is but one person in a web of real-life lawyers, farmers, activists and journalists from the story. 

An oft-repeated feature of Seeds is that each line in the script was spoken, at some time, by someone, and is thus an accurate representation of the lawsuit and fallout, though Soutar is careful to weave in her own skepticism throughout the play as the playwright. 

While the myriad factoids and characters are a lot to digest, and the show feels rather long, it’s all food for thought in the most classic sense of the expression. Is Schmeiser a David and folk hero or a small-time miser out to sow seeds of discontent? Are GMOs a true threat to food security or another way to feed a growing planet?

While studying journalism a few years ago, I was fascinated to realize that documentary makers and journalists will refer to the real-life people they interview as 'characters', and that they also search for and plot story arcs. This seems disingenuous, almost fatally artificial, but really, it’s a way of identifying and telling compelling stories. Soutar’s eye for a mythical battle of David versus Goliath allows us to see a remarkable story and the big question buried beneath the news reports; the cast lifts up names from newspaper articles and sound bites and turns them into living, breathing humans. 

With the direction of Chris Abraham, Seeds has been updated by incorporating the role of playwright into the cast (Liisa Repo-Martell and Christine Beaulieu alternate in the role). I have not seen the 2005 version of the show, nor the updated French version of Grain(s) (with Beaulieu as the playwright) in 2012 at La Licorne. But from what I’ve seen, adding in the role is an excellent flourish that helps us understand both Soutar’s work and the ambivalence around Schmeiser’s status as the anti-GMO 'David'.

Seeds is a landmark documentary theatre excursion that delights in both the big picture and small details. Schmeiser himself has not yet seen the production, but as the show will be travelling through Canada this season, perhaps he’ll finally get a chance to see it, and revisit his own mythology.

Seeds runs until November 24. 

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