Friday, June 8, 2012

Review: Seeds (FTA)

Liisa Repo-Martell and Alex Ivanovici

joel fishbane
The great questions of the universe have been bottled and staged in Seeds, the exquisite docudrama by Annabel Soutar currently playing at the Festival TransAmériques. A David and Goliath story in which you’re never quite sure who is who, Seeds is only ostensibly about the legal battle between Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser and biotech corporation Monsanto; beneath the arguments about patent infringement, court transcripts and press clippings lies a play that explores deep questions about the essence of life and the consequences of our attempts to control it.
there are no wings and the cast is on stage to greet the audience, introducing themselves with their actual names

Soutar’s script is taken entirely from printed documents or from live interviews she herself conducted: the entire text is an amalgamation of actual quotes with Soutar herself taking centre stage to guide us down the rabbit hole. It’s not really Soutar though  - she’s being portrayed by Liisa Repo-Martel – and this is just one of the many meta-theatrical things happening in a production which has had pitch-perfect direction by Chris Abraham, Artistic Director of Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre.
Abraham has ramped up the inherent theatricality of the script and removed all illusions in the process: there are no wings and the cast is on stage to greet the audience, introducing themselves with their actual names. The six actors play dozens of characters but all transformations happen in full view. (There’s also a great inside joke in which actor Alex Ivanovici, Soutar’s real-life husband, plays himself in a domestic scene with Repo-Martell.) Even the technician is embedded in the set, which might be the storage room of any regional theatre. Pieces of a farmhouse mix with office furniture which in turn are dwarfed by a rack of flowering plants. We are clearly watching theatre – and no one in the room is about to let you forget it.
it’s quite the story

Rather then alienate us, however, the technique draws us in, as if the cast is a group of friends who have said: “Here, we have this story to tell and we think you should hear it.” And it’s quite the story. Percy Schmeiser (David Ferry) has been accused of growing genetically modified seeds without a permit. Although at first our sympathies lie with the elderly farmer, Soutar soon succeeds in doing exactly what she promises a Monsanto rep early in the play. She wins an interview with publicist Trish Jordan (Cary Lawrence) only after promising to present a fair and unbiased account of the trial. Soutar does just this and it’s her changing loyalties that form the emotional core of the play. 
Seeds is probably one of the most important new works to appear on the Canadian stage in recent time and not just because its various arguments - regarding genetic engineering, corporate skulduggery and the queasy relationship between science and money – all feel like a call to arms. Soutar’s script is especially notable because it is the perfect marriage of content and form. The story of Percy Schmeiser and Monsanto spans years, crosses continents, deals with mind-numbing bio-tech theory and features a virtual army of characters. Yet Soutar’s script – along with Abraham’s direction and a crackerjack cast - succeed in making one think this is the only possible way the story could ever be distilled into digestible form.
You have two more chances to catch Seeds at the FTA – note that the performance on June 8 is at 7 PM while on June 9, it’s at 4 PM. Don’t miss it.
Seeds by Annabel Soutar runs at the FTA until June 9. For tickets visit the FTA site or call 514.844.3822.

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