Sunday, October 20, 2013

Greek Tragedy - Canadian Style: Soulpepper's Farther West

Soulpepper's production of Farther West (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

John Murrell has a long-established and fully justified reputation as a playwright who creates good roles for women and places them in well constructed works based on historical Canadian subjects. So it makes perfect sense that he would create a play about Canadian prostitutes in the 19th century. Farther West, first produced in 1982 (directed by Robin Phillips and starring Martha Henry) and now running at Soulpepper’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts until Nov. 9, won Murrell a second Chalmers Award, the first coming for 1977’s Waiting for the Parade. It is the story of May Buchanan, a prostitute who worked her way from small-town Ontario westward across Canada in the 1870s and ’80s. She started at 14, on the advice of her father, who had just found her having sex with a much older neighbour: “You can’t carry on like that here, girl. You better move on. Better start moving, farther west.”

Director Diana Leblanc’s production is striking, starting even before the opening: a naked couple is entwined on-stage as the audience takes its seats. No question, nudity is powerful, and the tableau leads convincingly and appropriately into the play proper. Astrid Janson’s set, though simple – a painted scrim backdrop, a sloped platform – is made striking by Graeme Thomson’s lighting, and it should be noted that a river, or rather a creek, runs through it. Janson’s costumes are grittily realistic, nicely matching the tone of the first act, at least. The scenes in Vancouver switch to a sort of nasty melodrama that takes us into a somewhat over-the-top ending.

Throughout, Tara Nicodemo plays May with fierce passion, casual sensuality and an ironic sense of humour. There is never any doubt that she is in charge of her life, and her body, even when men want to rearrange it, even when her lifestyle is threatened, even when everything is in tatters. This is an award-winning performance. Much of the action takes place in Calgary, well to the west, where May is running a small brothel. She and her “family” – Lily, Violet and Nettie – are perfectly content, happily entertaining men, not just with sex, and going on picnics. The denizens of the brothel are delightful, and convincing, especially the sardonic, motherly Violet (veteran actor Kyra Harper). Dan Chameroy puts in a nice turn as the client Babcock, who seems to want to adopt the whole group of women – until there is trouble, when he disappears.

Kyra Harper, Tara Nicodemo & Jeff Lilico (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

It is in Calgary that May meets the two men who will be the most important in her life: the moralizing policeman Seward (Dan Lett), who is torn between wanting to put her out of business and wanting to fuck her; and the love-struck rancher Shepherd (Matthew MacFadzean), who wants to marry her and settle down. May, in pursuit of a life with “no rules, no laws, no judges,” is not interested in either of them, though she seems to enjoy provocatively teasing Seward, and Shepherd is a lot of fun as a customer, until his attentions become as obsessive as Seward’s.

May and Violet escape both men, fleeing even farther west, to Vancouver. But life on the West Coast is not as idyllic as May had hoped. She and Violet fall into an abyss of alcohol and bullying men, and are not having much fun any more. The intensity is cranked up when both Shepherd and Seward track her down. Seward, by now dismissed from the police because of his May mania, still wants to punish her for her “sins”; Shepherd, who has sold everything and spent the proceeds tracking her down, still wants to marry her. May still wants nothing to do with either of them, but things are on a bad track and come to a bad end.

Well, a bad end can be a great ending, and while the conclusion of Farther West could be seen as purplish, it is undeniably moving. We like May Buchanan, but her passion, pride and determination make her fate as inevitable as anything seen in Greek tragedy.

Jack Kirchhoff is an arts writer and editor in Toronto.

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