Winnipeg Free Press Review


To the country

Boundary-pushing play wonderful

GUY Maddin's films are always visually impressive, but they tend to be emotionally chilly.

The wonderfully weird theatre production To The Country, which makes magical use of video by former Maddin collaborator Deco Dawson, is unmistakably Maddinesque in its dreamlike, silent film-referencing style. But it's also poignant.

It engages the heart with its tragicomic story of a miserably lonely man, even as it amazes with its imaginative, cross-disciplinary mix of video, surreal set design, puppetry, masks, opera and straightforward drama.

The five-actor show by the Winnipegger Ensemble, which opened Thursday at the Gas Station Theatre, runs 80 minutes without intermission. Local actor/playwright Sharon Bajer has adapted it from the enduring 1848 short story White Nights by Fyodor Dostoevsky and co-directed with her partner, Carson Nattrass.

Bajer has transposed the story to downtown Winnipeg in the summer of 1920. Though she emphasizes, in her director's notes, the feeling that the city takes on when much of the populace flees to cottage country, that's of minimal relevance.

Ross McMillan (a past screen actor for Maddin) gives an acutely truthful performance as Ivan, a brooding, socially inept dreamer who has no friends and lives in a grimy rooming house kept by a harridan landlady (a comically hardbitten Monique Marcker).

Ivan's imagined conversations with the houses he passes each day are conveyed by means of three actors wearing house cut-outs on their heads. Strange as that sounds, it's beautifully consistent with the fairy-tale tone of the story, which has layers within it that comment on storytelling.

When Ivan encounters a lonely young woman, Nastenka, it seems he's found his soulmate. With her sweet ingenue's face and melodious voice, Daria Puttaert is utterly charming in the role. And she's emotionally convincing, though her character is whimsically tethered to her tyrannical blind granny (an archetypal relative of Maddin's mother in My Winnipeg) by a chain of stitched-together tea towels attached to her apron.

Nastenka's sad tale is that she fell for a dapper lodger (Graham Ashmore) who promised to return and marry her. Pathetic, madly-in-love Ivan finds himself in the supportive-friend role as she pines for her fantasy man.

Set designer Carolyn Gray has brilliantly fashioned Granny's house (seen through Ivan's imagination) as a distorted dream-place in which the lodger looms so large that he can barely squeeze down the stairs.

Dawson's highly stylized, early-film-era video enhancements integrate with the action in ways that draw gasps from the audience. When Simon Miron sings an aria from The Barber of Seville, the projection behind him makes him appear on a vintage theatre stage.

Joseph Aragon's musical accompaniment, Grant Guy's marionettes and Meg McMillan's costumes all contribute to the show's balancing act between absurd humour and despair.

Though one wishes McMillan would project his voice a little more, Ivan's stiff posture and halting manner speak volumes about a self-loathing, self-imprisoned misfit who is terrified -- like many of us -- that life will ultimately amount to nothingness.

Dostoevsky -- and Bajer -- ask whether life's brief moments of bliss justify all our humiliation and suffering. Let's just say that for audiences, beautiful, boundary-pushing collaborations like this one justify years of suffering through safe, mediocre theatre.

Theatre review

To The Country

The Winnipegger Ensemble

To Sept. 19 at the Gas Station Theatre

Tickets: $15

Four and a half stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 12, 2009 C9