Finding the Canadian Moral Compass, on the Road
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Finding the Canadian Moral Compass, on the Road

The Crow's Theatre/Porte Parole co-production The Watershed is something we can be proud to put on the international stage of Panamania.

The Soutar/Ivanovic family goes for a helicopter ride over the tar—sorry, oil—sands. Photo by Gunter Kravis.

The Watershed
Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street)
Runs to July 19
$15 – $42
stars 4andahalf

With all (well, some) eyes on Toronto as we host the Pan Am/Para Pan Am Games, we’ve received a lot of flak for our apparent dearth of enthusiasm for the mega-event. While that’s obviously not true, the arts community in Toronto might very well be a bit distracted—the cultural programming in the Panamania pseudo-festival is pretty top-notch. We hope that our international visitors will be able to take in some of that, as well as a match or two, because some of it, like Annabel Soutar’s The Watershed, is exactly the kind of art that Canada should be presenting to the world.

The Watershed, which runs only until Sunday, is a continuation of the very successful partnership between Montreal’s Porte Parole theatre company and Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre after 2012’s Seeds. In that show, playwright Annabel Soutar used her own investigations and interviews to create a piece of documentary performance (all dialogue is verbatim, or taken directly from written documents) that chronicled the court case between Saskatchewan farmer Perry Schmeiser and the Monsanto corporation, while simultaneously writing herself into the show to transparently display her own biases. She takes this concept even farther and very cleverly in The Watershed by injecting her family directly into the story from the beginning instead of what felt slightly like an afterthought in Seeds. The result is a very entertaining play, emotionally and intellectually, that both criticizes and defends everyone involved. It’s a political play through a personal lens, which is very much the kind of quality Canada is known for. Or rather, the quality many of us wish it was still known for.

In The Watershed, Soutar (played by Kristen Thomson) enlists her husband Alex Ivanovici (playing himself) and their two daughters Ella (Amelia Sargisson) and Beatrice (Ngozi Paul) to help her research her next play, which will be about water, in some way. Quickly she latches onto the story of the Experimental Lakes Area, a world-renowned centre for research on lake water, which had its funding cut suddenly by the Conservative government in 2012. As Soutar learns more about the players involved in the ensuing outcry, she draws connections from this small facility to the oilsands (or tarsands, depending on where your personal bias lies), to the economy, to our dominant ideologies, to the very way we live our lives.

Soutar must have wielded a very large red pen in the writing phase, since the sensitive ELA issue is handled with clarity and a lean delivery of key information—including technical speak from experts, rousing speeches from activists like Maude Barlow, and a devil’s advocate in her own Conservative Party–donor father. But she includes more than enough humour to keep the whole show feeling very light. Sometimes the cultural Canadian touchstones feel a little too easy: Stephen Harper (Bruce Dinsmore) singing “I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends” around a campfire, an opening essay by Jian Ghomeshi (Dinsmore again, in an impression that’s nauseatingly good, leather cuff and all), or ending an excerpt of Here and Now with Soutar proclaiming, “Carol, off!”

Actually, it’s Soutar’s daughters who often steal the scene. Paul and Sargisson pull off their concurrent curiosity in watersheds, investigative journalism, and Frozen with a very endearing honesty. Tanja Jacobs is also hilarious as the brash Hazel, the daughter of director Chris Abraham, who joins them on their trip across Canada to Fort McMurray.

With Julie Fox’s sparse set of wood, plastic piping, and porcelain home fixtures (a tub, a toilet, and a sink) that transforms from the Soutar/Ivanovici home into the Winnebago they drive across the country, effective projections by Denyse Karn, lighting by Kimberly Purtell, and sound by Thomas Ryder Payne (Patrick Watson’s “Adventures in Your Own Backyard” is a very apt anthem), the production is even more carefully edited than the script.

This is very good theatre. But what The Watershed does that makes it great is that it removes any possibility for it to remain theoretical. Even the inclusion of Soutar’s real family doesn’t guarantee that it will necessarily hit home for everyone in the audience. What did, at least for us, was the ingenious inclusion of director Chris Abraham (played by Paul, stroking a terrible fake beard) who openly advises Soutar to be more careful in the way she talks about the play and the ELA conflict to major governmental players, as Crow’s has a million-dollar grant at stake to fund their new theatre under construction at Dundas and Carlaw—the banners and pamphlets for which ornament the Berkeley Street Theatre lobby steps away. He’s committing the mortal sin of an art-maker, letting government pressure influence the work he and others make. But we also sympathize with his position and the fear over jeopardizing the future of the project. But then again, isn’t our constant drive to grow, expand, and consume the very behaviour that’s putting our ecological resources in danger, and perpetuating the argument that economy rules over all other priorities?

And that’s what The Watershed is really about, what we’re willing to give up for another’s benefit, and why it’s so hard to change our minds. Soutar uses the political to reflect very deeply on the personal, in a bravely honest way. This is the kind of Canadian we hope becomes the norm, and not the exception.

(Side note: There’s also another moment that feels all too real: when a key interview is cancelled at the last minute, Soutar melts down in front of her family with a curse-ridden rant. We feel you, Annabel, we feel you.)

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