An all-star cast and inventive storytelling combine art and journalism in Crows Theatre's Seeds.
There are countless ways to interpret the headlines of the day: facts to weigh, context to understand, and, sometimes, sides to take. Documentary theatre is an increasingly popular technique for artists to explore real-life events on stage, and to shed light on the sides of stories we may not see in the news. On now at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, a co-production between Toronto’s Crows Theatre and Montreal’s Porte Parole, Seeds is the latest example of documentary theatre to hit the city.
The trial of Saskatchewan canola farmer Percy Schmeiser versus the biochemical corporation Monsanto in the late 1990s doesn’t exactly scream “compelling theatre,” but at its core are the basic elements of just that: a clear conflict, complex characters, and a strong message. Throw a cast featuring Eric Peterson, Liisa Repo-Martell, and Tanja Jacobs; a design team of Julie Fox, Richard Feren, and Elysha Poirier; and director Chris Abraham into the mix, and the result is quite a stunning piece of inventive stagecraft.
Playwright Annabel Soutar is the audience’s way into the case, as the play follows her own investigation, discoveries, and commentary. Between interviews, recorded interactions, court transcripts, and official reports acted out by the cast, Soutar (played by Repo-Martell) explains in layperson’s terms the details of the case, which found Schmeiser (Peterson) guilty of illegally buying Monsanto’s patented pesticide-resistant canola seed. The first act progresses through the various participants in the case, introducing the mega-corp’s PR flack (who clutches a Starbucks cup), the jovial former mayor of Bruno, Saskatchewan, Schmeiser, and his wife (Jacobs). It’s a clear battle of good against evil, and all seems lost when the verdict comes down.
In the second act, Soutar stops being only a vessel to communicate the story, and begins exploring her own biases and misrepresentations. Suddenly, Monsanto’s claims grow legs and Schmeiser, as he tours the world accepting awards and giving speeches, shows a dark side. Soutar, who was pregnant at the time of her research, lets the story invade her personal life as she becomes consumed with the question “What is life?” At this point, the story slips into philosophical commentary and loses its focus. We’re also left on uneasy ground: the trial may be over, but the jury’s still out in our minds.
The cast does an excellent job of maneuvering through the material, creating characters that are slightly exaggerated for the sake of theatricality but grounded in reality by the verbatim script. Peterson is believable both as Percy-the-friendly-everyman and as Percy-the-opportunistic-fame-hound. But the staging is perhaps the most compelling aspect of this production, with Fox’s blank canvas of a set keeping the actors at work even if they’re not in the scene. Poirier’s video and multimedia projections are visually stimulating, most notably while replicating Schmeiser’s televised speeches, and Feren’s sound design in the courtroom scenes is eerily accurate.
Abraham, his cast, and his designers turn Seeds into a crop of facts, biases, and spectacles. It’s up to the audience to harvest the truth.