Thursday, January 16, 1997
Thompson's Sled ain't no Rosebud
by Judith Thompson
directed by Duncan McIntosh
staring: J.W. Carroll, Ann Holloway, Derwin Jordan,
Michael Mahonen, Pamela Matthews, Nancy Palk, Ron White
set & lighting design: John Jenkins
costume design: Sue LePage
original music: Bill Thompson
stage manager: Brian Scott
Jan. 7 - Feb. 16, 1997
Ron White and Michael Mahonen
The play itself is called Sled -- but thanks to unfocused writing and and
playwright Judith Thompson's first offering in seven years would be more aptly titled Thin Ice.
And sadly -- but hardly surprisingly, after they've broken through that
thin ice several times in the
course of the three- hour offering that opened at the Tarragon on Tuesday night -- most of the
seven-member cast drowns in the effort.
In many ways, it is still recognizable Thompson fare -- a work peopled
by characters drawn
from the dark underbelly of contemporary society -- a world to which this playwright seems
inexorably drawn. So, it's recognizably Thompson, but it's not good Thompson, on a par with
works like White Biting Dog -- the bricks from which she has built a solid reputation.
In Sled, Thompson trains her focus on Clinton Street, just one of the byways
in Toronto's Annex
It was once, we are told by old Joe (played by J.W. Carroll) a trail down
which cattle went
placidly, unaware of the fate that awaited them at the slaughterhouse that marked trail's end.
It is a fate that will be shared by most of the Clinton denizens that populate
boulevard of broken dreams, but while they live, they are quite a crew.
There's lounge singer Anne Delaney and her cop husband Jack, played
by Nancy Palk and Ron
White. After 20 years, their flagging marriage appears to be in a renaissance of sorts -- at least
until they run afoul of a shotgun and the hairpin trigger who owns it.
Then there's Evangeline (Pamela Matthews) and her long-lost half brother
Mahonen) -- a family tragically torn apart in childhood only to be even more tragically reunited
And there's old Joe himself, a watcher, narrator, catalyst and ultimately
a victim too, despite a life
In a sprawling story that meanders through the Annex and into the northern
reaches of the
province in search of some sort of salvation, Thompson spins a fraught, overwrought tragedy,
filled with ghosts asnd gutter dwellers who disgust us far more than they inform.
Still, one hears faint cries of a better play than has been unearthed here
by director Duncan
McIntosh, who allows his cast to stampede through the script.
What Thompson has created here is a work that demands the sparest acting
-- lean, mean and
clean -- and instead, McIntosh gives carte blanche to a performance-by-the-pound approach
that only serves to further obscure any redeeming qualities. Though Palk occasionally seems to
stumble into fine moments, only White escapes this orgy of overacting.
Rather than serve to minimize the sprawling scope of Thomspon's storytelling
and the cast's
subsequent abdication, John Jenkins' elaborate freeway of a set only heightens a sense of
abandonment in an audience already desperately trying to dodge the wheels that keep flying off
Finally, if you have fond memories of Thompson's earlier work, treasure
them. And if you're
curious about why she's emerged as one of Canada's strongest theatrical voices, don't try to find
Totally Snowed Under
BY CHRISTOPHER WINSOR
Featuring Michael Mahonen, Pamela Matthews, Nancy Palk, Ron White.
Written by Judith Thompson.
Directed by Duncan McIntosh.
To Feb 16. $19 $24. Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. 531-1827.
There is a scene late in the third act of Sled, Judith Thompson's much
awaited return to playwrighting, in which a wife confronts her husband with a
troubling dream. She dreams that he is walking toward her carrying an
aluminum pail, and coiled within is a snake. Despite repeated pleas for him to
stop, he continues to come at her. Her husband, fed up with the
conversation, dismisses the image, saying, "We all have secrets."
It's one missed moment among many, in a very troubled play.
The dream image, like much of Sled, is portentous. It's suggestive of the
subconscious realities that lie coiled beneath the banalities of domestic life.
Suggestive of powerful, and not always pleasant, sexual drives. And it points
toward the mythic; snakes figuring so prominently in the world's great
But the husband's remark is a facile closure to the scene, and a typical
response in the face of all that freight. Sled staggers under the weight of all
it portends, and what closure there is, is inelegant. The result is awkward, at
times even maddeningly sophmoric. Enough to make you wish that whole
sections of this production were secrets that had been kept.
Sled opens in the lounge of a Kirkland Lake snowmobile lodge, with a ballad
from small-time singer Annie Delaney (Nancy Palk, who's unfortunately a
better actor than a vocal stylist). It's a disquieting tune, with lyrics at odds
with the setting. Her rogue cop husband Jack (Ron White) is up for the
weekend. Next to their table are two trashy northern kids, who mouth off
about Annie's body in very crude terms. Jack does the honoroble thing and
kicks the shit out of Kevin (Michael Mahonen), the loudest of the pair.
Familiar Thompson territory here: vulgarity, violence, the absence
middle-class polish. Later that night, Annie hears a snowy owl and is
compelled to follow it into the woods. She's given to that kind of thing (as is
Thompson, whose totemic treatment of animals -- think White Biting Dog -- is
again present here).
Also in the bush, however, are the two thugs from the lounge, armed and
drunk on a stolen sled (skidoo). They're out poaching moose when Kevin
comes across Annie. Knowingly, he shoots her, and removes her red dress.
Back on Clinton Street, Annie and Jack's big-hearted neighbor Joe (J.W.
Caroll) is rocking on his porch as usual, and telling some wonderful tales. Next
door, Evangeline (Pam Matthews) wonders if the footsteps she hears at night
are her those of her long-lost brother. Guess who that'll turn out to be. And
right there on the same street as Jack. How convenient. Turns out brother
and sister aren't fully related after all, so the incest taboo is diluted.
Under pressure, Evangeline becomes a stripper. The grieving Jack becomes
her favorite customer. One night he walks her home, and is confronted by
little brother. They brawl their way upstairs, until he eyes the red dress. In
the melee, Evangeline grabs a gun.
OK. Shit happens. I know that. Violence gets transmitted from generation
generation. This too Thompson underscores. But Sled is no sociological
portrait. It's too obviously contrived and dependent on coincidence. The story
structure, full of flashbacks and/or revisitations, has the feel of assemblage
rather than any organic unity. (Thompson has done a lot of film and TV
writing of late -- is there an undue influence?)
The language of the play, at times delicious prose poetry, at times a gutter
snarl and sometimes cinema verité, is pulled in all directions with often
unsatisfying results. The performers handle the shifts according to their
ability, which is unevenly distributed. Director Duncan MacIntosh -- who
should shoulder much of the blame -- appears to have left them out in the
Neither the players, nor the audience get much respite from the set.
atrocious -- three narrow catwalks adorned with severed birch trees.
Upstage, is a trompe l'oeil recreation of the porches of Clinton Street. And it's
hemmed-in, in a small upstairs room furthest from the audience, that the
show's melodramatic climax takes place.
This too is suggestive. Whatever mythic sweep Thompson is aspiring to in
Sled, has been boxed-in by the unhappy constraints of this flawed
Judith Thompson finds myth in the
By JILL LAWLESS
Judith Thompson writes the most dreamlike of plays. But that doesn't mean
ethereal or whimsical about her work. In our everyday lives, we busy ourselves with details in
order to block out powerful, submerged forces and fears. In dreams, as in Thompson's
vibrant and disturbing plays, they come gushing out.
In Thompson's eyes, the familiar streets of Toronto are seething with myth
brimming with violence, longing and fear.
Sled, her first full-length stage play in seven years, is set among a group
of neighbours on a
stretch of Clinton Street - an ordinary inner-city block, and Thompson's own neighbourhood.
Their stories encompass love and murder, depravity and grace. They echo with snatches of
Gaelic, French, Italian and Cree.
"I'm a magpie," says Thompson, who in person is warm, articulate and unexpectedly
un-scary. "The stories in the play are extraordinary, Marquez-like, magic realist - but they're
all true. We all hear and tell stories all the time, and everybody's story is extraordinary and
resonant and in touch with a kind of collective consciousness.
"One day one of my neighbours, an older, Italian-Canadian man, said, 'You
know, I never
tasted milk until I went into the army.' He grew up in Toronto in the Depression, and his
mother was a widow with nine children. He said, 'We used to watch the cows being taken
down to the slaughterhouse at Clinton and Bloor, but we never saw the meat.' And I thought,
'I don't know anything about Toronto.'"
Thompson's first play, The Crackwalker, was set in the rough end of Kingston,
and all her
work since then has been vividly specific about place. Sled's mythic stories of frozen corpses,
long-lost siblings and coffin ships sprout from the sidewalks of Toronto's Seaton Village - also
the setting for her 1990 piece Lion In The Streets - and the forests of northern Ontario.
She is inspired by her city and her country - the richness of its polyglot
harshness of its landscape, the traces of its hidden past.
"I didn't set out to mythologize my street and make it cool - it's just
that it is mythic for me,"
says the two-time Governor General's Award-winner. "We have that sense about New
Orleans, about Times Square, about Jerusalem. Why not Toronto?
"And since I turned 40, I've started to think about where I am and how
much this natural
environment means to me. I feel kinetically attached to the changing of the seasons, to a
winter day like today. I never consciously thought, 'I'm writing a play about Canada.' But I
selected stories that have to do with this country.
"My neighbour told me about how the Italian immigrants would bury their
guns in the garden -
that's like how we bury our culture. And what does my culture - Irish six generations ago -
mean to me? All of this started coming together for me. Who I am, who we are."
Sled is gothic in its audacity, apt to follow up a murder with a song,
the threat of violence with
the hope of redemption. It's these juxtapositions - a form of stylization that seems more
natural than the "realistic" conventions of stage naturalism - that give Thompson's plays their
"One character says, 'People think because they are in the woods, in their
own country, and
there is a warm fire back at the lodge, they are safe. They're not safe.' When you're in
Algonquin Park, you think that because there are signed trails and a ranger not too far away,
you must be safe. Until you see a bear. People freeze to death every year. In Fredericton,
someone is killed by a falling icicle every year.
"Sled is really a contemporary Jacobean tragedy. There's a sense of tragic
destiny at work.
But that's what happens in life. One character points out that Clinton used to be a cow path.
It will be a cow path again. In 100 years, every one of us living on that street will be dead."
Thompson, who trained as an actor at the National Theatre School, has directed
work - she did so with Lion In The Streets. But Sled is led by Duncan McIntosh, artistic
director of Edmonton's Citadel Theatre.
"I like directing actors, and I love being in tech, but it's too much to
do two things at once,"
she explains. "I have to get this text right. Someone told me, 'I loved Lion In The Streets, but
I can't remember anything visual about it.' That's no slight to the designer. I just didn't have
time to care about that. But Duncan and designer John Jenkins are writing another play
"And the actors fill every moment, give the play levels I hadn't dreamed
of. That inspires me
to write better. And then the ideas just happen.
"The engine that makes my plays run is partly the force of the unconscious,
the id - my own,
and also a collective unconscious. It feels really hit-or-miss and lucky. I may walk in one day
and it won't happen. It always feels like the skin of my teeth."
© 1997 NOW Communications Inc.