Friday, October 18, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Yukon Style

Ryan Cunningham and Grace Lynn Kung (Photo by Bruce Zinger)
Polar Winter Viewed On A Frosty Stage
by joel fishbane

Filled with poetic majesty and some thrilling dramatic moments, Yukonstyle by Quebec playwright Sarah Berthiaume fights very hard to be an important theatrical experience. Set during a polar winter in the Yukon, the play drops four offbeat characters into a world of racism, addiction and coathanger abortions, all set to a soundtrack of the media storm that surrounded the Robert Pickton murders. The ingredients for great drama are there. Yet somehow, despite supreme efforts from all involved, the final product still falls a little flat.

Most of the trouble comes from Berthiaume’s text, which has been deftly translated by Nadine Desrochers. Both Berthiaume and Desrocher know their way around a sentence and the play shifts from realistic dialogue to stylized third-person narration, where each character steps outside the action to provide the sort of gorgeous prose you often find in a book. The language itself is like a great river that sweeps you along and carries you into a world where magical realism mingles with the everyday.

The story itself, unfortunately, is no match for the words used to tell it. The narrative is unfocused, with Berthiaume apparently unable to decide which narrative thread she wants to drive the play. Yukonstyle begins promising enough with the arrival of Kate (Kate Corbett), a transient runaway who is found shivering in downtown Whitehorse in less then appropriate clothes. She is taken in by a sympathetic Yuko (Grace Lynn Kung) which provokes tension with her roommate Garin (Ryan Cunningham). 

Garin is secretly in love with Yuko, so the stage is set for Kate to become some sort of the catalyst for this unrequited love to come to a head. There are hints that Yuko may have bisexual leanings and a scene in the restaurant where Yuko works suggests that she might be attracted to Kate. Yet nothing ever comes of this plot point; halfway through the text, the story shifts away from the women and becomes centred on Garin’s relationship with his dying father (Francois Klanfer) and his own search for identity.

Other plot points are left to dangle - Kate has a broken arm, but don’t ever expect that to become relevant in any way. And Garin spends the whole time playing a single angry note that it’s hard to see why he and Yuko are such good friends – we’re told he loves her, but we almost never see it. Meanwhile, the intriguing conceit of having the Robert Pickton trial playing out in the background of these events never have a satisfying payoff, mostly because it’s never tied into the character’s desires or immediate needs.  

Director Ted Witzel gives us some gorgeous stage pictures and there are several deft moments when he marries design and narrative. The actors each have their moments with Kate Corbett shining brightest as the obtuse teenager who seems completely uninterested in getting her act together. And Gillian Gallow’s set is paired well with Bonnie Beecher’s lighting to mimic the dark, claustrophobic polar winter that has settled over the characters and their world. 

As a fan of both Bethiaume and exquisite language, it’s hard not to recommend Yukonstyle, despite my reservations about the plot. The world of the play is definitely one rarely seen on Canada’s cultural landscape (or, sadly, our political one). The Yukon is often forgotten up there in the north and one has to applaud Berthiaume for giving us a glimpse through a frosty window. 

Yukonstyle by Sarah Berthiaume, translated by Nadine Desrochers plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto until October 27. For tickets visit 

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