Liisa Repo-Martell and Eric Peterson, in Seeds.
Photo: Guntar Kravis
In the world of documentary theatre Seeds may reign supreme as one of the most complex topics ever incubated for the stage. The story is one well suited for the headlines-as-dialogue, taunt teaching moments, and characters-as-points of view form of theatrical presentation docudrama uses to construct its world. The little guy – and they don’t get much smaller than the individual farmer – is suddenly and it would appear unjustly targeted by a multi-national corporation because their genetically modified seeds have capriciously settled on his land producing a crop resistant to the weed blasting properties of Round Up herbicide. That’s the simple plot.
The necessary complication is that in choosing to make an example of our feisty farmer, Percy Schmeiser from Bruno, Saskatchewan, portrayed with wit, indignation and a touching vulnerability by Eric Peterson, Monsanto, like all big corporations who never look before they leap on the little guy, have selected the wrong target. But Percy’s crusade against Monsanto’s high handed tactics in the promotion and protection of their superior seeds is mixed with a mystery. Did Percy perhaps – just perhaps – because he is our hero after all, knowingly allow Monsanto’s seeds to flourish amid his crops without rendering unto Monsanto/Caesar its financial due. Questions are raised when his crop is tested for its Monsanto percentage. But how were samples collected and who did that testing? Perhaps the results were contaminated with the seeds of bias. This conflicting testimony is not helped by a court scene with overlapping dialogue. Though perhaps the goal is to create the confusion of a court that never appears to settle the question, or that given conflicting facts people hear what they want to hear.
Stepping into the heart of this conundrum is our investigative playwright/ journalist, a character happily played by the precisely passionate Liisa Repo-Martell, who finds herself in a difficult situation. Her sympathetic charm gets her to the kitchen table of Percy’s home where she meets his supportive, soup serving wife, played by the remarkable Tanja Jacobs, who deftly paints a number of character portraits. However, Repo-Martell’s journalistic side is jabbed by the thought that Percy’s plight may not be the David and Goliath scenario she initially envisioned. Her eventual decision to call his neighbours and dig a little deeper into her hero’s character is a necessary journalistic ploy that raises the play’s emotional stakes.
Meanwhile, back in the fields.
What exactly is genetically modified seed, how does it work, is it a good or a bad thing, and what are the agricultural and environmental implications of its use? This is not the sort of dramatic question that leaves an audience breathless. So, following in the tradition of most good documentary theatre our playwright hits us with no less a ‘big question’ than what is the meaning of life? We’re talking about the life that emanates from seeds of course, the life energy that blossoms in our food, the life that keeps us busy propagating generation upon generation on this little blue planet. Ought we to be messing with this stuff? (An easier question to wax philosophical about when you don’t live in a country where a truly drought resistant crop means a few thousand less people starving in the streets.)
But before drifting off on that genetically modified train of thought, let’s get to the fun part: enter the legal implications!
If some enterprising corporation manages to make the seed of life better, can they patent it like any other product, in other words, do they own it? And if they own it, how do they protect that ownership in a world of capricious natural agencies that blow it around, or from the likes of feisty farmers who in the time honored tradition of all feisty farmers know how to tell off a corporate bully or two. Fortunately for Percy he is on the side of the angels, a fact underscored by another one of the many impressive characters delightfully conjured to life by Tanja Jacobs. Percy’s dilemma has clearly touched a nerve and this is where the play really takes off, philosophically and theatrically.
When you’ve got a tough row to hoe, hand a spade or two to the best actors in the country to help you dish up the dialectic. This director Chris Abraham has done, and the result is an all round talented cast of the aforementioned plus: Bruce Dinsmore, Mariah Inger, Alex Ivanovici, and Cary Lawrence. All these actors play a multitude of characters, sometimes smoothly switching genders, to often hilarious effect. Abraham has also juxtaposed the funny and clever traditions of agit-prop theatre – the table that turns into a tractor – with Elysha Poirier’s excellent media design of video clips featuring black and white images of impassioned speeches, colorful Monsanto fields of dreams ads, stark images of important words you’ll remember for the exactly five seconds necessary, and of course real time shots of an audience that enjoys waving to itself.
But, as things start to get really busy you wonder if the playwright and ensemble have succeeded in doing what all theatre must do and that is to make us care – really care – about the characters, the conflict, and the implications of this story.
Ok, so what do you care about? Do you care if our government cares about science? Yes? Ok, go see this play.
Do you care about the relationship between corporations, individuals and communities, and who our government throws its support behind? Yeah, maybe.
Fair enough, but do you care about the stuff of life as it appears in your grocery store, makes its way to your table and is served up for the preservation of yourself and those you love? Yes. Absolutely.
Ok, brave this winter of erratic global discontent and go see this play. You will see theatre written by a dedicated writer/journalist, performed by an exceptional cast, and directed with inspiration. Theatre that dares to ask the kind of questions impossible to ignore in the 21st century, if we want a 22nd. Just how much playing around with the life forces that sustain us should we allow by the people who (bottom line) want to make a lot of money?
Seeds is the kind of theatre that poses the haunting challenge: If you love this planet you will…what? Take an action? Maybe. But, for now, go see a play.
If you don’t, you actually might lose something.
By Annabel Soutar
A production of Porte Parole Theatre
Presented at the Frederick Wood Theatre, Vancouver, as part of the PuSh Performing Arts Festival, January 2014.
Seeds plays at the National Arts Centre, English Theatre from March 6 to April 12, 2014.
Director: Chris Abraham
Cast: Eric Peterson, Bruce Dinsmore, Mariah Inger, Alex Ivanovici, Tanja Jacobs, Cary Lawrence, Lisa Repo-Martell.
Seeds Production Team:
Stage Manager: Merissa Tordjiman
Associate Director: Mitchell Cushman
Technical Director: Camille Robillard
Set & Costume Design: Julie Fox
Lighting Design: Ana Capelluto
Sound Design & Music Composition: Richard Feren
Video & Projection/Media Design: Elysha Poirier
Video Operator: Angeline St – Amour
To order tickets by phone for Seeds at the NAC call: 1-888-991-2787.