These two productions will have recently concluded their runs in Toronto by the time this article appears in Aisle Say but both deserve coverage. Two Words for Snow was a limited run presented at the Artword Theatre. It was a modestly produced piece by Volcano (an indy arts company) and is a play that deserves a longer life while Vinci, (produced by CanStage in Toronto) was a heavily supported production that to date has appeared on three of Canada's main stages.
The Eskimo Room of New York's Museum of Natural History is the setting for Richard Sanger's history and memory play about the race to the North Pole in the first decade of the twentieth century. The world has long forgotten how Polar exploration captured the imagination at the turn of the century. The race to the "top" of the earth was played out in pulp fiction and children's board games that encompassed the same jingoistic fervor and sense of manifest destiny that the space race would epitomize fifty years later. As is the case in many scientific discoveries, who gets the credit and who gets the footnote at the bottom of the page is still at issue.
Commander Robert Edwin Perry (David Fox), who controversially claimed to have successfully planted the American flag at the North Pole in 1909, plays a supporting role in Sanger's version of the events that brings forward the major part in the trek played by Perry's African-American assistant, Matthew Henson (Nigel Shawn Williams). Henson served with Perry for over twenty years and in that time schooled himself in the language and customs of the Inuit people as well as constructed many of the implements and sledges that took the expedition successfully to the Pole. On the way, both he and Perry fathered children with Inuit women and at one point, Perry, at the request of the anthropologist Franz Boas (Jerry Franken, brought back six Inuit to be put on display at the American Museum of Natural History of whom four promptly caught influenza and died.
The fictional premise that begins the play has Robert Edwin Peary, Jr., Tom Barnett confronting an aging Henson at the Museum in 1935 where he goes to relive and remember his life close to the exhibition that commemorates their achievement. It seems that Henson has been speaking with the press and muddying the waters around who did what and when, and Peary, Jr. wants him to stop it. Before you know it we flash back to the North twenty-seven years earlier as Henson begins to tell his tale. This is as good a dramatic device as any to get things off and running although I guess if they were in a science museum they could have entered a time machine, but that's nitpicking.
Ethnography is the compelling subtext of this play and to that end the introduction of the Inuit woman, Akatingwah (Lucie Idlout) is what draws us into an evolving love story between a black man and a native woman thrown together in the middle of an expedition bent on national glory, careerist ambition and the pursuit of fame.
The acting in this play is uniformly strong with David Fox and Nigel Shawn Williams evenly matched as the ego driven Perry and the faithful, but undervalued Henson. Williams switches back and forth as the embittered, aged then younger and vigorous Henson with a facile fluency that sensitively carries the bulk of the play. Jerry Franken plays a wonderfully cynical and witty Dr. Franz Boas, one of the founders of modern anthropology and the MNH itself. Hugh Thompson is the Newfoundland outfitter and schooner captain, Bob Bartlett, who also accompanied the expedition and is mainly concerned with the once in a lifetime chance to become famous and have drinks with the swells at the Explorer Club once the expedition returns to New York. Tom Bartlett as Perry's son has perhaps the most thankless task of the evening as basically the sounding board for Henson to relate his exploits.
But the real credit for the play's success must be given to the moving performance by Lucie Idlout as Akatingwah, the human subject that Perry wants to photograph and display. Idlout (an actor and prominent northern musician whose debut album E5-770, My Mother's Name, appeared last spring) brings authenticity and stature to the role that only a woman of native heritage could achieve.
Two Words for Snow takes its title from Franz Boas' 1911 book, Handbook of North American Indian Languages which first speculated on the number of Inuktitut words for snow. Two words for Richard Sanger's play are: passionate and moving.
Vinci is a big sounding play title that soon turns out to be about a small Italian town. To be sure, the "big idea" is front and centre at the opening as a large drop screen pictures The Last Supper and various engineering sketches as might have filled the many notebooks of the original Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci. A spiral platform with a bell tower at the top encircled by a helix further foreshadows the feeling of a genius at work.
But this, it turns out, is only the prelude to genius. Bartolomeo (Gordon Rand) is the recently ordained village priest who is a friend of Piero (Craig Erickson), a willful young lawyer and son of the first family in the village. Piero is admiring his father Antonio's (Robert Benson) beauteous new maidservant, Caterina (Particia Fagan). He shares his lustful desires with Bartolomeo who finds that his own faith is sorely tested by the boastful Piero and bops his boyhood friend on the bean in order to knock some sense into him. In the middle of their fight (which livens things up a bit after some lengthy and somewhat boring exposition at the top of the first act), the patriarchal Antonio enters and tells the boys to quit it right now. They do but Piero goes on to impregnate Caterina anyway while at the same time meeting and marrying Albiera (Fiona Byrne), a woman of his own class.
Life goes on in the village of Vinci until it becomes clear that Piero still longs for the impoverished Caterina after he finds himself in a loveless, barren relationship with Albiera. But by now Caterina has borne her son out of wedlock and so the attention now turns to the young Leonardo. When the Vinci family makes it known that they are going to lay claim to Leonardo, Bartolomeo warns Caterina to get out of Dodge and this she does well before sundown. This provokes something of a crisis of conscience for Bartolomeo although luckily the witty brother to Piero, Fancesco (Dylan Trowbridge), is there to offer support.
Although my account of the plot so far has been a bit flippant, this is not to say that we haven't gotten drawn into the central conceit of the play - that is, the little known early years of Leonardo da Vinci and the environment that might have formulated his genius. The second act takes this development further with a calculated risk: the little tyke is never seen. He is here and there somewhere out of our eyesight as his mother calls to him about this and that little invention the wee lad has just put together.
The playwright could have taken a chance and written a part for a real child and have us either fall in love with him or be put off by a precocious little brat - as I say its risky. However, the emotional high point and climax of the second act is when the Vinci family comes to claim Leonardo from Caterina. The scene is not without real emotion and poignancy when Caterina finally takes her exit leaving her unseen son with the family of the boy's father. Had a real child - one that we had grown to know and like at the end of the first act and then seen real bonding between mother and son through the second act - had that child been parted from his mother and handed over to the wealthy Vincis, the emotional impact could have been very great indeed. Personally, I think the risk would have been worth it and there was a missed opportunity here. The real love story is not between Caterina and Piero but rather between the 15th century single mom and her son.
Nonetheless, the acting ensemble lifted the play with the most notable work coming from Gordon Rand as the affable priest and conscience of the village. Patricia Fagan and Fiona Byrne played particularly well against each other in one of the most moving scenes in the second act. Dylan Thomas had a bit of Touchstone in his Francesco while Robert Benson and Craig Erickson were a suitable father and son.
Maureen Hunter is a capable playwright whose next play will be eagerly awaited.
Although Vinci lacked a certain sense of sprezzatura to set it apart and make the story new, there was real ingenuity present in the set design by John Jenkins. His rotating spiral platforms and cascading apple trees were a delight to watch and an inventive addition to a play about invention.
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