Tag Archives: Joy Fisher

My Rabbi makes for riveting drama

My Rabbi

A play co-created by Joel Bernbaum and Kayvon Kelly

Directed by Julie McIsaac

The Belfry Theatre, Sept. 16-28, 2014

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

When a Jew and a Muslim walk into a bar in My Rabbi, two old friends rediscover each other. But can they revive and maintain their friendship in a time when Palestinians and Israelis are locked in conflict? That’s the central question of the play. Their struggle makes for riveting drama.

Co-created and acted by Joel Bernbaum (Jake) and Kayvon Kelly (Arya), the play races along as it explores the question in a series of short scenes. The two actors capably take on other roles to advance the narrative. In one scene, Bernbaum plays a brutal interrogator; the snap of Arya’s broken finger is audible and convincing. Character changes were clear and convincing, testament to the talent of both of these actors.

The setting is spare—a table, a couple of chairs—a classic set-up for great theatre. And, in this play, that’s exactly what emerges.

My Rabbi is described as a comedic drama, and humour (too often sexist humour) leavens the drama. But I had tears streaming down my face for much of the 60-minute show, as the two characters struggled with increasing difficulty to be supportive of one another as they each faced life’s trials. In a monologue near the end of the play, Jake, by then a rabbi, questions how hate can be resisted in this polarized and polarizing world.

The play offers no easy answers, but the playwrights wisely disrupt the chronology to leave the audience with a glimpse of a happier time. The final scene is a flashback to a moment just before Arya is to leave on a cultural exploration of his father’s homeland, Syria. Jake celebrates with him. They clink drinks and salute each other. “L’Chaim,” they say—to life!

Kelly and Bernbaum, collector and editor of last season’s popular verbatim theatre presentation Home is a Beautiful Word, sketched out a first draft of the scenes in a pub after graduating from the Canadian College of Performing Arts in Victoria in 2008. The characters were initially based on themselves (Bernbaum is of Jewish descent and Kelly, whose last name was formerly Khoskan, Iranian). But the play developed over the next six years into an exploration of what might happen if two formerly non-religious friends embarked on very different journeys of religious discovery in a world where adherents to their respective faiths are locked in mortal combat.

In 2009, the play had its first reading as part of Puente Theatre’s WorkPlay series, and, in 2011, it was featured at the Belfry’s Spark! Festival. The finished work was well-received in its world premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August during the height of the most recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza. The current run at the Belfry is the Canadian premiere. After it closes in Victoria, it will play at Vancouver’s Firehall Arts Centre from Oct. 7-18.

Do yourself a favour and go see this play before it closes in Victoria on Sunday (Sept. 28). You’ll be glad you did.

A long time coming, but worth the wait

Fists Upon a Star

By Florence Bean James with Jean Freeman

University of Regina Press

298 pages, $34.98

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

If you like true stories about strong women, you’ll like this book. If you’re interested in live theatre, this book will engage you. If you have a vague notion that it’s important to fight injustice, this book will snap into focus your understanding of the human cost of government tyranny.

If, like me, you have a sparking interest in all three topics, this book will ignite you.

Subtitled “a memoir of love, theatre, and escape from McCarthyism,” Fists Upon a Star tells the story of Florence Bean James and her husband Burton, who founded and ran the Seattle Repertory Playhouse for 23 years, until Washington State’s House Un-American Activities Committee convicted them both of “willful refusal to answer proper and material questions.”

Ruined financially by the legal expenses incurred to fight the charges, they lost the lease on their theatre to the University of Washington. By December 30, 1950, the final curtain had descended on their last production, and, by November 13, 1951, Burton James had, according to his doctor, died “of a broken heart.”

In Seattle, the Jameses had devoted themselves to a “theatre of the people, by the people and for the people.” When Florence migrated to Canada in 1952 after being offered a job with the new Saskatchewan Arts Board by none other than Tommy Douglas, she finally found a “philosophical home.”

Norah McCullough, former executive secretary of the Arts Board, recalled a conversation she had had with then Education Minister Woodrow Lloyd. Concerned the Jameses might have been Communists, Lloyd asked about Recreation for All, the proposal Burton James had made to the State of Washington which had brought him under suspicion. McCullough had a copy and gave it to Lloyd. When he read it, he said: “Well, it sounds like the Saskatchewan Arts Board,” and she replied: “Yes, exactly.”

Already in her 60s when she moved to Canada, Florence James travelled “the length and breadth” of Saskatchewan by train in all kinds of weather conducting acting workshops and directing amateur theatrical productions in hundreds of communities. After her retirement from the Arts Board in 1968, Florence continued to work as a dramaturg with the Globe Theatre, the first professional education theatre company in Saskatchewan. In 1976, she was awarded the Diplome d’honneur by the Canadian Conference of the Arts, presented to a Canadian who has “made a sustained contribution to the cultural life of the country.”

In Canada, Florence James took up the job of finishing the book her husband had started before his untimely death. He had defiantly named it Fists Upon a Star, from a passage in Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem, John Brown’s Body, about the radical abolitionist who raided Harper’s Ferry in 1859.

Florence kept the title, wrote and, with author/actor Jean Freeman, rewrote the book and searched in vain for a publisher until her death in 1988 at the age of 95. Fists Upon a Star was finally published in 2013, after Canadian playwright, journalist and social activist Rita Deverell took up the cause and persuaded the Canadian Plains Research Center (now the University of Regina Press) to take a look.

Now we can all take a look. And I hope you will.

Fists Upon a Star includes a preface by Freeman, an annotated introduction by Mary Blackstone, professor emerita of the University of Regina Theatre Department, and an epilogue by Deverell.

It was a 2014 nominee for the Saskatchewan Book Awards in the categories of non-fiction, publishing, and publishing in education.

Joy Fisher graduated from UVic in 2013 with a BFA in writing. She is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. 


Belfry nails tri-level family drama

Equivocation: Telling the Truth in Dangerous Times

April 25, 2014

Playwright: Bill Cain, Director: Michael Shamata

Belfry Theatre, Victoria

April 22-May 25: (Belfry), June 11-September 20: (Bard on the Beach)

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Equivocation is a play about family told on three levels. Politics, says Shagspeare (playwright Bill Cain’s favourite spelling of Shakespeare’s name), is “family writ large.” On this level, the play is about a country divided into the “old religion” (Roman Catholicism) and the new one (the Church of England).

These are dangerous times: it’s 1605, the “Gunpowder Plot” has fizzled, and dissident Roman Catholics, including Father Henry Garnet, are about to be executed. Shagspeare, played by Bob Frazer, has been commissioned to write the official history of the Plot, but he begins to suspect that the government’s version is not true. What to do? He fears he must choose between two equally unpalatable alternatives: “lie or die”.

Shag turns to Father Garnet, who wrote A Treatise of Equivocation, for help in resolving his dilemma. Garnet advises him to look for the “question under the question” in order to avoid both lying and dying. He illustrates with this story:

Suppose you are hiding the king, and his enemies come to the door and ask: “Is the king within?” If you say “no,” you are lying, but if you say “yes,” the king will die. However, if you look for the question under the question, you will discover they are really asking: “Can we come in and kill the king?” To this question, the true and moral answer is “no”.

Cain wrote his play in recognition of the dangers that exist whenever governments lie. The philosophical lesson of Equivocation thus resonates today as much as it did in 1605.

Tobin Stokes’s non-diegetic music powerfully underscored the sense of danger, while the lighting design by Alan Brodie provided an apt visual metaphor for the concept of equivocation: grey fog swirled in a spotlight above stark black and white lighting throughout the show.

I was keen to see how Shag would equivocate his way out of his dilemma. Alas, it was not to be. Somewhere in the middle of Act Two, the commission to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot fizzled like the Plot itself, and so did the plot of the play. On the political level, Equivocation is a play without a climax, and this was disappointing.

The emotional heart of Equivocation is embedded in the second level, which is about the family created in theatre companies. During the period depicted, Shakespeare was a member of The King’s Men, a company in which the actors owned shares that entitled them to participate in decision making. They squabble among themselves, but are held together by their mutual love of theatre, the nature of which they debate at length. Cain, who once ran his own theatre company, writes this story with great affection and high humour.

The third level is about Shagspeare’s relationship with his daughter Judith. The audience is told that both Judith and Shagspeare understand that Shag wishes Judith had died instead of her twin brother, Hamnet. To Judith, stoically played by Rachel Cairns, goes the last line of the play: as she washes Shag’s dead body, she says: “I never knew I had a story until he wrote it.” This line sours the ending because Judith did indeed have a story, but neither Shakespeare nor Bill Cain wrote the truth of it and Judith, who lived it and therefore did know it, was illiterate, and could not.

This co-production runs until September 20, so the actors have plenty of time to perfect their roles. Four of them, Anousha Alamian, Shawn MacDonald, Gerry Mackay, and Anton Lipovetsky have dual roles as both players and characters. They clearly delight in this complexity.

The play runs two hours and 45 minutes with one 15-minute break—inordinately long. It’s nevertheless easy to understand why Michael Shamata, the Belfry’s artistic director, directed it himself. This play may not be perfect, but it’s rich faire, intellectually stimulating and an emotional treat for anyone who loves theatre—two very good reasons to go see it.

Joy Fisher graduated from UVic in 2013 with a BFA in writing. She is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada.

Canadians, playwrights minority at AWP

By Joy Fisher

Undaunted by winter weather, a small contingent of intrepid writers from Victoria boarded the Clipper for its morning run to Seattle recently to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference.

Joined by a smattering of Canadian writers who rolled in from Vancouver and flew in from points east, the Victoria group claimed their space among some 12,000 other writers, most from the United States, who attended the three-day conference.

The number of panel discussions devoted to playwriting were also in the minority at the conference–just three out of more than 500 offered. The dismal status of playwriting was reflected in the title of one of the three: “Playwriting: the Bastard Child of Literature?”

The two minorities came together memorably, however, in a panel entitled “Playwriting in the Pacific Northwest: A Specialized Craft in a Unique Region.”

Moderated by Bryan Wade, associate professor of dramatic writing at the University of British Columbia, panel members considered whether playwrights from the Pacific Northwest on both sides of the border had more in common with each other than they did with their compatriots to the east.

Joining Wade were two Canadian playwrights, Kevin Kerr and C.E. Gatchalian; Oregon-based playwright Andrea Stolowitz; and native Alaskan playwright, Cathy Rexford. Each examined the disadvantages and advantages of playwrights situated at a distance from the theatre centres of their respective countries.

One disadvantage was what Kerr characterized as a “battle against theatrical loneliness.” He recounted a conversation in which a Toronto colleague happened to mention that he had always thought of Vancouver as a “cultural backwater.” At that moment Kerr realized “we are on our own.”

Perhaps because of this isolation, west-coast playwrights have, in recent decades, pioneered theatre companies in which members collaborate on the writing of plays. Kerr, an associate professor in the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria, co-founded the Electric Company Theatre in Vancouver and has worked to bring collaborative companies together for conferences to share their respective processes.

Gatchalian called this collaborative model the “Vancouver esthetic” and distinguished it from what he termed the “Toronto esthetic” which he described as the “text-based” model of the individual playwright working alone on a script. Gatchalian also noted the comparatively “financially precarious” position of the Vancouver theatre scene, which he attributed, in part, to the fact that theatre-going is not as ingrained in the population because it must compete with easy access to a wide variety of outdoor activities.

Stolowitz acknowledged the relative financial insecurity of working in places that are not theatre capitols, but argued that the trade-off is “a certain freedom to dream.” She is a member of Playwrights West, a new professional theatre company in Portland focused on presenting top-level productions of its members’ work. Playwrights West produces work for local audiences and Stolowitz says her writing is often inspired by “place.” “But there are no rules—I can do what I want,” she said.

Rexford, the most geographically isolated of all the playwrights on the panel, had perhaps the most defined mission. Following completion of an MFA in playwriting at UBC, she returned to work in the Alaska Arctic, where she labours to adapt traditional stories and revitalize the native language of the Inupiat people through performance theatre and native dances. “It’s the narratives of the people that connect Alaska natives involved in theatre,” she said.

Joy Fisher graduated with a BFA in writing from the University of Victoria. She is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada.





Poet captures link between language and place

By Joy Fisher

Vancouver writer Daphne Marlatt took her audience on a flaneurial stroll through the history of her city and its influence on her poetry and prose in the Lansdowne Lecture that opened the Second Annual Malahat Review Spring Symposium, WordsThaw at the University of Victoria recently.

Aided by archival photographs by Philip Timm that capture the city’s early history when big timber hid the sky and streams snaked through town and more recent photographs by Trevor Martin that reflect glass-walled skyscrapers, Marlatt illustrated the constantly transforming nature of Vancouver since its incorporation in 1886.

Marlatt’s personal connection with Vancouver began when she arrived as an immigrant in 1951. Born in Australia, she moved with her family to Malaya (now Malaysia), at age three, finally arriving in Canada as a nine-year-old. Her first impressions of her new country were of the “cold clarity of the sea” and a creek that ran through the family’s yard in North Vancouver, from which she gathered a sense of Vancouver as “fluid.”

When she was a student at the University of British Columbia, a visiting professor suggested Marlatt try to write about her early years in Malaya, but it was her adopted land that captured and held her attention.

Her first published piece, an imaginative story about Vancouver pioneer “Gassy Jack” Deighton, drew on city history. Although few knew it at the time, that piece predicted the future of Marlatt’s writing life. Vancouver has been a “well-spring” for her writing since 1972, she acknowledged, and she freely confessed that, although she writes about other subjects as well, her 40 years of writing about Vancouver has been “fairly obsessive.”

She noted, however, that she is not alone in taking Vancouver as her muse.  There are many others, she insisted, listing some prominent writers including Douglas Coupland, who roamed the world before coming home to Vancouver to settle down for good. Coupland later published a book of short essays and photographs about the Vancouver skyline called City of Glass. 

A series of exits from and re-entries to Vancouver living sharpened Marlatt’s sense of Vancouver as a constantly changing city. This affected not only Marlatt’s choice of subject matter but also her writing style. For instance, in the 1970s, during a time of rapid growth in the city and change in her own life, she wrote of vacant lots and construction sites. Reading from her work, she demonstrated how the rhythms of her writing became “jumpier,” echoing the rhythms of the city life around her. Her prose was becoming more poetic, and eventually her genre of choice became poetry.

As a young writer, Marlatt delved into city archives as a way of trying to make herself feel at home in a strange new place. She acknowledged that, for her, acculturation was a long process, but by the time of her “fourth entry” into the city in 2000, after some years spent on Salt Spring Island,  she finally felt like she was “coming back home.”

As the city continues to change, she and her friends sometimes ask one another: “Do you remember what used to be there?” Often they don’t, but Marlatt insists that the ongoing transformations don’t leave her with a sense of loss, but rather with a sense of “layered richness” which she tries to embody in her poetry.

“Life’s a gift. You can either hold onto it or you can give it away,” Marlatt said. She believes in giving it away through her writing.

Marlatt’s most recent book is Liquidities: Vancouver Poems Then and Now, published in 2013 by Talonbooks.

Joy Fisher graduated with a BFA in writing from the University of Victoria in 2013.


Proud: parsing a farce

February 7, 2013

Playwright: Michael Healey

Director: Glynis Leyshon

Belfry Theatre, Victoria

February 4-March 9

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Photo by David Cooper

When I emerged from the Belfry Theatre after seeing actor-playwright Michael Healy’s latest play, Proud, I felt confused. Something was wrong, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

Billed as “political satire” by its distinguished director, Glynis Leyshon, Proud was somehow unsatisfying despite “crackling” dialogue, fast pacing and polished acting by some of Canada’s finest, including Rick Roberts. Roberts, you may recall, played Jack Layton in the CBC biopic. In Proud, he shows his range by playing an unnamed Prime Minister modelled after our current Prime Minister. Now that’s versatility.

Proud proposes an alternative universe in which the Conservatives won Quebec in the last federal election and the Prime Minister has a massive majority including a feisty political neophyte named Jisbella Lyth, played assertively by Celine Stubel.

The Prime Minister, and his Chief of Staff, Cary, played by award winning actor Charlie Gallant, soon learn Jisbella has something in common with them: political amorality. Recognizing a kindred spirit, the PM concludes Jisbella is worth mentoring—and using. Having Jisbella author an anti-abortion (“pro-life”) bill to distract the press so the PM can slip through a change to government unnoticed seems like a fine idea to them all.

What’s the big change the PM wants to slip through on the QT? Muzzling government scientists? Ditching environmental laws? No, the PM wants to reduce the size of the Privy Council Office—a modest goal.

So where is the dramatic conflict in this play? There isn’t any, and, artistically, that’s this play’s main problem.

There are others. A fourth character, Jisbella’s grown-up son, played by UVic Theatre grad Kieran Wilson, talks about political morality from the vantage point of 2029, when the Prime Minister is still in power; but he’s too removed from the principal action of the play to matter. Finally, Proud is a “talky” play. During all the political yak, the Chief-of-Staff makes the point that “politics is fundamentally an emotional event.” Plays are also fundamentally emotional events, and a play that’s too talky can kill emotional response in the audience.

It might be argued that laughter is an emotional response, and it can’t be denied that Proud is humourous. But analyzing its humour reveals its genre confusion.

Although satire, like farce, is usually humourous, unlike farce, satire has a greater purpose: to draw attention to troubling social issues and offer constructive social criticism. Proud doesn’t do that. Since all the principal characters agree that political amorality is just fine, that issue isn’t examined; and since the PM’s goals are so modest and reasonable, no substantive issues are critiqued. Proud confused me because I expected satire; but what it offers isn’t satire: it’s only farce.

So if we can’t be proud of Proud as political satire, what can we be proud of?

We can be proud of Michael Healey for not giving up when Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, fearing a libel suit from the Prime Minister (the real one), nixed his play despite the fact he had been a playwright-in-residence there for more than a decade.

We can be proud that other theatre companies all across Canada from Halifax to Vancouver staged readings of Proud, both to raise money for its independent production and to support the principle of free artistic expression.

And we can be proud that the Canadian public rallied to the cause by contributing almost $18,000 in twenties and hundreds in response to a crowd-funding campaign to pay for its premiere in Toronto.

As a work of art, Proud may disappoint; but the circumstances surrounding its realization are cause for celebration.

Joy Fisher graduated from UVic in 2013 with a BFA in writing. She is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada.  

Leacock-winner’s characters warm-hearted at core

Dance, Gladys, Dance

By Cassie Stocks

NeWest Press

300 pages; $19.95

By Joy Fisher

When 27-year-old Frieda Zweig answers an ad about a beautiful old phonograph for sale, she’s hoping to meet Gladys, who’s selling the phonograph because she’s giving up dancing and needs the room for baking. Frieda, in retreat from a broken romance and determined to give up her attempts to become a visual artist, hopes Gladys can show her how to lead a “normal” life.

Instead,  answering the ad puts Frieda in touch with the paranormal .  Gladys, it turns out, is a ghost, albeit a friendly one who has Frieda’s best interests at heart. When she answers the ad, Frieda meets an elderly but lively man named Mr. Hausselman, who teaches photography at the local art centre. “Mr. H.,” as Frieda soon comes to call him, offers her a room in his house at a price she can’t turn down. Thus begins an adventure that will ultimately lead Frieda on a path of personal growth.

Gladys and Mr. H are just two of many colourful characters convincingly drawn by Cassie Stocks—an accomplishment worth celebrating in the author of a first novel — which has won the 2013 Stephen Leacock Award for humour.

There’s Norman, Frieda’s ex, a well-meaning fellow who feels duty-bound to keep his promise to his dead father to manage the family’s string of porno shops; Norman’s mother, Lady March, who fancies herself a spiritualist but isn’t afraid to bare it all for a worthy cause; Ginnie, Frieda’s art school mate, who’s determinedly climbing the corporate ladder in the commercial art world; Mr. H’s son, Whitman, a Hollywood filmmaker who buys his best screenplays from Marilyn, a brilliant druggie who lives in a Winnipeg flophouse; Mr. H’s neighbour, Miss Kesstle who crochets incessantly and, though never married, has a solid maternal instinct; and a doomed girl named Girl who is the last of Gladys’s line.

It’s a little easier to understand how this novice author managed to create such diverse characters when you read her bio. No spring chicken when this novel was finally published, Stocks is described as “a biker chick, a university student, an actress, and a rich man’s gardener.” She had also worked as a waitress, an office clerk, an aircraft cleaner, had raised chickens and had even been the “caretaker of a hydroponic pot factory.” In short, by the time she wrote this book, Stocks had already lived a long and diverse life, and she clearly poured all of her experiences into her characters.

And almost all of them, in spite of their individual differences, eventually come to have the best interests of the others at heart. The book is set in Winnipeg and is imbued with all the solidarity and fellow-feeling of the participants in the Winnipeg General Strike. These characters eventually organize a sit-in on the roof of the local art centre when the city decides to sell the building to a chain store. They succeed in saving the centre, of course, and, in the process, weave a web of support for one another that’s also revitalizing for the reader.

And what of Gladys? Well, in the end, Gladys dances one more time while Frieda cheers her on, and then she disappears for good, but not before Frieda reclaims her own identity as an artist by getting out her paints to capture the dancing image on canvas.

“I hoped you’d do it,” Gladys says to Frieda, when she sees Frieda plying her brush once again. “Mission complete.”

This is not a profound novel, but it’s a warm-hearted one. I loved hanging out with the characters in this book.

Joy Fisher graduated from UVic in 2013 with a BFA in writing.


Cabaret: Alive and Well in Victoria


Book by Joe Masteroff; music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb

Directed by Roger Carr

Langham Court Theatre


January 15-February 1

 Reviewed by Joy Fisher

 Some plays grow stale over time while others retain their vitality, sparkling with relevance decades after their first production. Cabaret falls into the latter category.

Opening on Broadway in 1966, Cabaret was one of two plays inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, based on the author’s life in Berlin between 1930 and 1933. The other play, I Am a Camera, written by John Van Druten, preceded Cabaret by 15 years, and, while I Am a Camera was not without critical acclaim, its success was severely curtailed by the acerbic commentary of New York Herald Tribune critic Walter Kerr. Kerr summed up his opinion with these words: “Me no Leica.” The play closed after 214 performances.

The original production of Cabaret, on the other hand, ran 1,165 performances. Furthermore, Cabaret has been revived every decade since, and its 1998 Broadway revival ran 2,377 performances, becoming the third longest-running revival in Broadway musical theatre history.

Why the difference? Kerr once wrote a book called How Not to Write a Play in which he asserted that plays will always be more successful if they are highly entertaining. He argued that entertainment can be at once enjoyable and artistically sophisticated.

The current Langham Court production, based on the 1998 Broadway revival, is both. While acknowledging the gay theme with a kiss between the main character, Cliff Bradshaw, played by Griffin Lea, and one of the Kit Kat nightclub’s “boys,” director Carr has chosen to emphasize the political theme inherent in the years of Hitler’s rise to power. It was an astute choice, for, while stories of gay history are quite rightly in vogue in these days of gay liberation, the theme of political oppression whispers daily in the ears of all of us.

In this charged atmosphere, the main story of the ill-fated romance between Cliff and Sally Bowles, played by Chelsea Kutyn, pales in comparison with that between Fraulein Schneider, touchingly acted by Susie Mullen, and Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schulz, played, heart in hand, by Alf Small. Cliff and Sally, after all, are expatriates, free to leave whenever they want, while Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schulz have no such free choice: they must act out their doomed affair in the land of their birth.

The starkness of their situation is highlighted by the song and dance number “If You Could See Her,” in which the Emcee of the Kit-Kat Club, admirably played by Kyle Kushner, dances with a partner in a gorilla suit pleading for the right to love the person of his choice.  “If you could see her as I do,” he sings, “she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”

Kushner is in large part the reason this shocking narrative is entertaining. Projecting a guileless exterior, he nevertheless effectively conveys an inner knowledge of the evil of the world. When, at the end of the play, he rips away his cabaret costume to reveal himself in the striped uniform of a concentration camp prisoner, only the audience is startled.

It’s not surprising that the entire run of this production of Cabaret is sold old. If you are unable to slip into one of the remaining performances by hanging around the lobby begging, as I did with puppy dog eyes, for an unclaimed ticket, don’t despair. Another Broadway revival is scheduled for 2014.

Joy Fisher graduated from UVic in 2013 with a BFA in writing. She is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. 










Homelessness: It’s Complicated

Home is a Beautiful Word

A play collected and edited by Joel Bernbaum

Directed by Michael Shamata

The Belfry Theatre, Victoria

January 7-19, 2014

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

The complexity of homelessness in Victoria B.C. shines like a multifaceted gemstone catching the sun one facet at a time in the world premiere production of Home is a Beautiful Word now playing at the Belfry Theatre.

Commissioned and directed by the Belfry’s artistic director, Michael Shamata, the play is the product of two years of hard work, most notably by playwright/journalist Joel Bernbaum, who interviewed more than 500 people from all walks of life and perspectives, including many homeless people, and then edited the resulting 3,000 pages of transcript into a two-act play that holds its own as both a work of art and an exploration of a persistent social problem. 

Five actors, two women and three men, give voice to 58 individuals in this production of “verbatim theatre”—where all the lines are taken exactly from the transcripts of the interviews. The actors leaned heavily on their dramatic skills to distinguish one speaker from another, and this effort was augmented by changes in costume, positioning on stage and the timing of entrances and exits. One particularly effective example of stagecraft was the use of a rotating stage to simulate a car tour of the downtown neighbourhood conducted by one interviewee.

In spite of this careful attention to craft, however, it was sometimes difficult for the audience to keep track of changes in speakers, although some stood out more clearly than others.   

The expressed intention of the play is to allow theatregoers to see homelessness from a “new perspective.”  For this reviewer, that new perspective came from an interviewee whose story emerged gradually as the play progressed. This person had opened a beauty school, but unanticipated incursions of street people into his facility eventually ruined his business and he lost his own home after he defaulted on his business loan. He emerged from this experience with his own perspective changed, considering the possibility of a new career in the helping professions. What set him apart from the homeless, he believed, was that he still had his “pride.”

Other vignettes that stood out included a monologue by the mother of a homeless woman who described the anguish she experienced because of her daughter’s precarious situation and another of a homeless woman who felt shamed in her daughter’s eyes when she didn’t have enough money to pay for her groceries and had to leave them at the counter.

The play provides no easy solutions to homelessness, but it offers an opportunity to encounter the problem in all its complicated thorniness.

The theme of “pride” and “shame” emerged more strongly in the “afterplay” discussion, when two people rose to share their experiences of homelessness. The woman complained that the play didn’t depict the “positive” aspects of homelessness. She had been banned from many hostels because of her outspokenness, she said, but had found acceptance among her homeless compatriots. When she voiced criticism of some in the homeless “industry,” a number of audience members, presumably working in that industry, rose en masse and left.

The man, who said he suffered from a brain injury, spoke at length about his personal travails. In both cases, members of the audience grew restless at what they clearly considered disruptive behavior and eventually drove these speakers from the hall.

In the play program, Michael Shamata compliments Joel Bernbaum for his “humanity and generosity.” He “made it possible for everyone to feel safe enough to share their most intimate stories,” Shamata said. The interactions during the afterplay discussion stood out in sharp contrast.

 Joy Fisher graduated from the University of Victoria in 2013 with a BFA in writing; she is a member of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada.







Play refuses easy solutions

Armstrong’s War

By Colleen Murphy

Directed by Mindy Parfitt

 Revue Stage,  Arts Club Theatre Company, Vancouver

 (World Premiere, Oct. 17 – Nov. 9/13)

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

When 12-year-old Halley Armstrong comes to the hospital room to read to a convalescing Afghanistan veteran, he tries to send her away. But she won’t take no for an answer. Thus begins an unlikely relationship that eventually enables each of them to reveal hidden secrets.

Halley, brilliantly played by 14-year-old Matreya Scarrwener in her theatrical debut, is determined to earn a community service badge as a Pathfinder. She has picked Michael off the “readers wanted” list because they have the same last name. But Michael, played by Mik Byskov, a recent UVic graduate, just wants to be left to his imaginings about his friend Robbie, with whom he shared a traumatizing war experience.

As it turns out, Halley and Michael have much more in common than just their last names. In different ways, the usual routes to conventional lives have been disrupted for each and they have both become “pathfinders” groping toward an ill-defined future. Halley is in a wheelchair and, when the play opens, Michael is under his hospital bed re-living his war trauma. As they read Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage together, they gradually confront the face-saving narratives they have each invented as a means of survival and admit to each other the truth of what really happened.

Both actors responded to deft direction by Mandy Parfitt, Scarrwener catching perfectly the delicate balance of a 12-year-old between childish fantasy and brave confrontation of real life, and Byskov sending shivers down the spine when he voiced the pleading of a wounded buddy: “Killl meee.”

The play isn’t perfect. Too much time devoted to reading aloud interrupted the dramatic action, and the decision to have Halley read the dialogue of union soldiers with a Southern accent and to depict Michael as a poor reader added to the tedium because the words and meaning were difficult to understand.

The most unsatisfying aspect of this play, however, may be the fault of unrealistic audience expectations. We want transformation, to see the characters rising whole and perfect out of the fires of devastation. But life isn’t like that, and playwright Colleen Murphy won’t let us kid ourselves that it is.

At one point, in a rage, Michael tears a book to pieces. When he gives it back to Halley, it is a patchwork of taped pages. Halley is shocked, but later reports that her teacher has accepted her cover story and assured her that there is a “replacement fund for books,” That may be true for library books, but not for the books of our lives. When our lives are destroyed, Murphy seems to suggest, all we can do is patch them up and move ahead as best we can.

Neither of these characters is transformed; they both cling to whatever they can of the conventional rules of life. By the end of the play, Michael is back in uniform, ready and willing to return to war despite the horrors he has experienced.  Halley is no doubt making plans for acquiring her next community service badge.

“That’s your trouble,” Michael says to Halley toward the end of the play. “You hope too much.” So do we all, and sometimes it leads to disappointment. But Halley has the final rejoinder. She reminds Michael of the family motto she tries to live by: “I remain unvanquished.” May it be so for us all.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria writer.