Praxis Theatre's latest production tells the important but mostly unknown story of radical theatremakers in the 1930s, but gets lost in romanticism and a unique set design.
Eugenia “Jim” Watts lived a life of legend. She inherited a small fortune from her grandfather in a time of economic depression, wrote and directed plays for the rabble-rousing theatre troupe Theatre of Action, had a play banned by the prime minister, reported from the grounds of the Spanish Civil War, during which she also drove an ambulance. Of course, this was after she spent years touring her anti-fascist shows from town to town in Southern Ontario, performing in front of union groups, sometimes getting run out by the authorities, in her car christened Jesus Chrysler.
Really, it’s about time someone told the story of Jim Watts. So kudos to Praxis Theatre and playwright Tara Beagan for recognizing this unsung Torontonian titan of a woman in their current show at the Theatre Passe Muraille Studio, Jesus Chrysler.
However, as rich in material as Watts is, we still leave the production wondering who she is, and what she is about.
While it touches upon the creation of Theatre of Action’s iconic production Waiting for Lefty, the script of Jesus Chrysler focuses on the romantic relationship Watts strenuously maintains with her childhood friend, poet Dorothy Livesay. Watts (played by Margaret Evans) flashes between hot and cold toward Livesay (Aviva Armour-Ostroff), who staunchly (or in cowardly fashion) stands by her friend until the day Watts disappears completely. Their “are-we-or-aren’t-we” relationship is thrown into even more confusion with the arrival of Nate (Jeffrey Wetsch), who at first has eyes for Livesay but quickly becomes entangled within Watts’s innate ability to manipulate and/or seduce and/or inspire those around her to join her cause.
We say all this with the caution, however, that we still aren’t sure exactly how Watts and Livesay really feel about each other, since our attention often wandered to pressing discussions taking place on stage about the Depression and the politics of the era. And really, we wish we had been able to focus on them more. Yes, it is important to create well-rounded characters when dealing with historical figures, but with figures as obscure as Watts, a little more context and a little less relationship talk would have helped in a huge way. It would give Watts’s character more oomph, more bravado, instead of leaving us to see her as emotionally weak and confused in the midst of her romantic woes. A “maybe” love story just can’t carry an entire play.
Much like the story of Watts’s life, there is great potential in Scott Penner’s practically revolutionary set design. If you’ve ever been to the backspace at Theatre Passe Muraille, you’d never know it was the same space. The audience is turned on its side, half sitting on stage with the actors (in Theatre of Action’s rehearsal hall), half along the length of the side wall. The balcony is turned into a second floor of the set—the living room and bathroom of Livesay’s home, which she retreats to when distancing herself from Watts’s erratic behaviour. Unfortunately, as impressed as we were upon entering the theatre, the set is disappointingly underutilized.
“We seek out our tragedies if we haven’t been blessed or cursed with them,” Watts announces, bookending the script with similar statements. Moments like these are cherished, making her a little clearer and understandable, and work well in tandem with clever use of a radio that plays back past moments in the script that show how she literally dramatizes her life and relationships. But perhaps the script should have taken this statement to heart—there’s enough drama right in Watts’s life to fuel a production, there’s no need to create any extra.