Gili Roskies, Matthew MacDonald-Bain

Let me be the first to say it: The Out Vigil should have a lock on two nominations for the 2015 Jessie awards. Well-known and acclaimed performer (but first time playwright) Julie McIsaac has woven together a new Canadian theater classic.

Between her script as well as contributions to the musical score of traditional fiddle and integrated original song we get a full formed imagining of both time and place. Actor and current Jessie nominee for ensemble performance (Cool Beans), Gili Roskies takes Ms. McIsaac’s superlative script and layers on a measured, nuanced performance that this reviewer will long remember. Storytelling and acting don’t get any better.  

On the surface, we witness a simple story line. Promising hockey prospect Danny MacEachern (Matthew MacDonald-Bain) bungs up his knee in a fishing accident that takes the life of his best friend Ian. This tragedy brings him closer with Ian’s sister Lizzie, maybe a bit too close. In need of a large amount of money in a hurry, Danny must leave his Newfoundland home and go west. “Nobody does this because he fucking wants to” pretty much summarizes the troubling choices life oftentimes throws our collective way. After failing to find employment in the tar sands, Danny makes his way to Dutch Harbor in Alaska with the intention of securing employment as a crab fisherman. Lizzie pursues her man. Nothing special in that.

What makes for an outstanding night of theater is how this simple and ordinary story is textured into a greater retelling of Man’s domination by Nature. Life’s short and nowhere shorter than in the fishing industry where every seasonal run is expected to impose a toll in loss of life and limb. While the men fish, the women pray for their safe return. In our story, women ritualize this practice and Lizzie has committed a mystical taboo by error of omission. Both Lizzie and Danny are bound by remorse and guilt for different reasons and in different ways while semi-consciously searching for redemption.

Gili Roskies, Matthew MacDonald-Bain
[Gili Roskies, Matthew MacDonald-Bain]

Somber as the play sounds, the script sparkles with the easy banter that Newfoundlanders are famous for. Laughs are many as Danny and Lizzie work through the gamut of nervous energy that is familiar to young lovers and folks in new and dangerous surroundings and circumstances. To my ear, Ms. Roskies nails the cadence and passion of a true Newfie. Somehow she avoids being a caricature of the outsize straight-talking redneck often lampooned on national television while providing the heart to allow us to care deeply for her predicament.

At first, the play takes some time to warm up to. Besides getting accustomed to the thick accents and idiom, a series of unsignalled flashbacks occur that left this viewer literally at sea as to what was going on. I sensed something special was developing but I was anxious because, being a new play, I thought maybe we were simply killing time until the existing narrative resumed. At intermission, I was still a little at a loss how the play would come together.  

That said, I am well aware that Director Sabrina Evertt’s Twenty Something Theatre troupe produces thoughtful, well-constructed and coherent plays that usually take patrons well outside of their comfort zones but then brings them back safely. I trusted that this work would be no different and I was proven correct. Upon reflection, the tale meshes in a way that the best of allegory or fable pay off.  

The intimate confines of the Havana stage are ideally suited to this production. Ian Schimpf’s set and lighting design is evocative right from the get-go. The hint of fog as we enter the notional net shed immediately establishes a mood of latent danger. The intensities of light and and colour further move us emotionally. Crab traps are cleverly rearranged to create other settings as and when needed. In a casual after-show chat I had with Havana’s onsite manager, he enthused that he’d never seen the space so well utilized. 

As Danny, Mr. MacDonald-Bain moves easily from word to song and hits just about all the right notes in what is asked of him. I did find his Newfie accent a little hit and miss and I felt he struggled to keep up up with Ms. Roskies’ bravura performance. Almost any actor would. That said, his amiability was immediately likable and worked well in fully realizing his characterization.

The supporting character of Cal (Raes Calvert) provides context to the Alaska fishery and moves the story along. Often used for light comic relief, Cal too has a story to tell that complements the relationship of Lizzie and Danny. It is near the end of the play when Cal sits down with Danny that loose ends come together in authentic and satisfying way. Mr. Calvert does what the script requires and he does it well.

The play’s three actors share the stage with wandering fiddler Christina Cuglietta. Whether her expert playing is adding dimension to the soundscape and/or being interjected as a punctuation device to move us into the next scene, her presence is so apt and well thought out that she is almost otherworldly.

To reinforce that the Danny/Lizzie story is by no means unique, an unexpected denouement adds pleasing depth and universality to your night out. It should get you to thinking.

For folk intent on seeing the best theatre out there, no Top 10 list omitting mention of this work will be complete. 

A performance of The Out Vigil lasts two hours. Performances of the The Out Vigil should carry on for years. This particular limited-run production continues to May 31 at Havana Theatre on Commercial Drive through May 31. Photos by David Cooper.

About Our Contributor Larry Ghini

Larry Ghini

Larry Ghini enjoys Vancouver's vibrant theatre scene and has taken in many productions over the years. He holds a BA in Sociology from Simon Fraser University. Larry is financially involved with the film Eadweard Muybridge, produced by Josh Epstein, directed by Kyle Rideout, and starring Michael Eklund.

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