At the Firehall Arts Centre until March 26, 2016
Posted March 19, 2016
It was the late novelist Marian Engel who said something about people who live on the very edges of continents. They get away from the centre as far as they can before falling off. I’ve always felt that we on the West Coast have a natural affinity for Newfoundlanders: all of us clinging like rockweed to the shoreline of our respective coasts. Certainly I have always felt the lure of Newfoundland. And you have to love the Newfie accent.
In Julie McIsaac’s new play The Out Vigil, the accent is very strong and the cast has obviously worked hard getting it down. But there’s nothing quite as frustrating as hearing other people laughing at lines you didn’t get. Or missing an important piece of the narrative. It’s not about volume or acoustics; it’s about asking an audience to accept what is almost a foreign language.
It’s a dilemma: the playwright, the director (Sabrina Evertt) and the cast (Stephanie Iszak, Matthew MacDonald-Bain and Zac Scott) want to make the work look and sound authentic.
The Out Vigil takes place in two fishing towns: Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where Newfoundlander Danny is trying to persuade Cal, a young smartass American, to hire him on for the king crab season. Danny doesn’t know a crab trap from a mousetrap, but he knows his way around the sea. He knows fishing and he knows boats.
Danny has left behind in Little Harbour, Newfoundland, a girl – spitfire Lizzie who has recently lost her brother, Danny’s best friend, to a storm at sea. She’s damned if she wants to see Danny out fishing again. According to “a guy in Anchorage” she tells us, two fishermen die in the Arctic fishing grounds every week throughout the season.
Part of the action being in Newfoundland, there’s music: rollicking, rousing music composed and arranged by the playwright, an amazing, multi-talented young actor/composer/writer. The cast all play instruments – including spoons, bodhran, tambourine – and there are, additionally, two musicians (Alison Jenkins and Christina Cuglietta) on fiddle, accordion and pennywhistle. As well as songs, there is incidental music and sound throughout. Sighing violin and haunting pennywhistle are sometimes well integrated, sometimes not. It’s dreamlike but slightly obtrusive, for example, when two characters carry on a conversation with two musicians standing right beside them, fiddling and pennywhistling away. Mostly, however, the music – especially at the end – is joyful and makes you want to book a flight to St. John’s as soon as the snow stops flying. Say, June or July.
The play is not linear; it opens with Danny trying to get Cal to hire him but in the next scene, Danny is on crutches. Connecting the dots is often what we do in the theatre but on top of not catching all the dialogue, the lack of continuity adds to the confusion.
With nets, buoys, ropes and planks, set designer Ian Schimpf takes us to the Alaskan dock, stage right, and the place Lizzie sorts the mail back in Newfoundland, stage left. All that’s missing is the smell of fish. Evertt, directing this world premiere for Twenty Something Theatre, keeps everything in motion.
The last scene, which is the best and where The Out Vigil has been heading all evening, is (I’m guessing) a local tradition: the women – mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives – left behind, sing a mournful Gaelic song that (I’m assuming) is the women’s way of acknowledging the risks everyone takes when men put out to sea. Which of their men will not return?
It’s a gorgeous candlelit scene, Iszak’s voice is pure and strong and the harmonies are heart wrenching. The women’s vigil reminds us that even now rituals are practiced in an appeal to the Fates; protect our sons, brothers, fathers and lovers. Bring them home safely from the relentlessly unforgiving sea.