Double Thrust into Farce


Thunderstick performed at Prairie Theatre Exchange, Thursday, March 30, 2011

Reviewed by John Herbert Cunningham

A thrust stage such as the one at PTE is of course ‘thrust’ into the audience, i.e. the audience appears on three sides of it, as opposed to the proscenium stage at MTC or the Warehouse, with the audience before it. At Thursday’s performance of Thunderstick, the audience was thrust into the lives of two First Nations characters, Isaac and Jacob, both trying to survive in the white world of journalism with differing success.

Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams, who wrote Thunderstruck over ten years ago, conceived of it as a statement, at once humorous and tragic, about residential schools. The original performance, by the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company, was directed by Lorne Cardinal. In 2009, Cardinal approached Theatre Network in Edmonton and Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon to re-stage a new version of the play. It would be directed by the two theatres’ artistic directors, Bradley Moss and Del Surjik, respectively.

Not having seen the original production, I can’t comment on the changes made during revision. However, the residential schools theme has become just one of many, none of which really go anywhere in this absurdist comedy.

In front of car

Cardinal and Lauzon in dress rehearsal, Saskatoon, 2009; photo by Liam Richards.

This new version of the play stars Lorne Cardinal, of Corner Gas fame, and Craig Lauzon, a regular on The Royal Canadian Air Farce. Making the play even more confusing than the proliferation of unresolved themes, Cardinal and Lauzon switch roles each night. On opening night, Cardinal played Isaac and Lauzon played Jacob.

The play opens with a thud, the thud being Jacob falling drunk on the floor. This happens in darkness, so that the only thing the audience sees is Jacob’s floundering, flailing, failing attempts to make it over to the coffee table in his living room. The table is covered in beer and liquor bottles—some of them not empty. Finally able to gain his footing, he staggers into the washroom where we are treated to the sight of him vomiting. This vomiting becomes a minor theme that will land Jacob and Isaac in trouble—in jail in fact when Jacob, during a prime ministerial press conference, vomits on Jean Chrétien.

While the washroom scene goes on, Isaac, Jacob’s cousin, enters Jacob’s apartment. Isaac is a successful press photographer who has spent a number of years overseas in Africa working in war zones. He shuns alcohol. Jacob, a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen, while attempting to convince Isaac to take a vacation, drags him along to the fateful press conference. Both get arrested and thrown in jail.

The press conference was held to announce that a female cabinet minister has gone missing. Jacob tells Isaac while they are in jail that there is also a female media personality missing as well. Jacob’s besotted brain hatches a conspiracy theory that they have gone missing together and are up at a Northern Ontario cabin in a lesbian love nest. Somehow Jacob convinces Isaac to accompany him on a drive to the cabin; his second wife had known the location and told him where it was. They travel north in a beaten up vehicle that they push onto the stage after it has broken down.

So they’ve stumbled upon a South African terrorist hide-a-way along with the two missing women, who are indeed in a lesbian relationship, just as the RCMP are launching a raid on said cabin. Sounds of gunshots and machine guns as well as that of a helicopter are heard while a helicopter searchlight scans the scene lighting the present of Isaac and Jacob. They wind back up in jail. This result is baffling and improbable.

Oh and yes, there is a love interest just to add another element to this already convoluted plot. The love interest is based more on pity than any true sentiment but, be that as it may, Jacob still considers it a love interest.

Marissa Kochanski, set designer, has created a sparse yet effective set consisting of several wheeled boxes and a few of what on first glance resemble old-fashioned metal bed frames. This set enables some of the most hilarious action in the play as Cardinal and Lauzon strut and shimmy across the stage in a display of mock masculinity between scenes as they disassemble and reassemble the stage settings. This display is enhanced by the burlesque music composed by sound designer Dave Clarke (not of Dave Clark Five fame; no relation to Dick.)

The show is designed to be seen twice—a clever marketing gimmick—so that you can see each of the stars in their changed roles.

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John Herbert Cunningham

John Cunningham is a Winnipeg writer. His poetry reviews have appeared in Arc, Prairie Fire, and other literary magazines.