If the words “The Beast” don’t bring to mind images of bumper-to-bumper traffic on Highway 63, roads with flames burning as high up as you could see on either side, evacuation centres that appeared overnight, and at least 2400 destroyed homes, stop reading now.
Bust, playing at Theatre Network until February 26, is for you if you’re remembering the 2016 Fort McMurray fire that started May 1, 2016, and continues to smoulder in northern Alberta.
In Bust‘s program, Director Bradley Moss says playwright Matthew MacKenzie approached him about making the play part of Theatre Network’s 2016/2017 season while the fire was still burning. Given Theatre Network’s experience having their own building burn down just over two years ago, Theatre Network was on board. Thus, Bust got it’s world première February 9 – 26 – about 9 months after the events the play is based on began.
Bust takes place three months after four Fort McMurray residents returned to their home. Or rather two of them – Ty (Brandon Coffey) and Carmell (Louise Lambert) – returned to their homes. Laura (Laura Brovold), Barry (Christopher Schulz) and their children had no home to return to, it having been destroyed by the fire. As the characters try to get their lives back to as close to normal as they can, a controversial call at their kid’s hockey game leaves them dealing with the fallout of a lot more than just the fire.
Bust isn’t a perfect play – far from it. There were moments and detours in the script I didn’t quite follow and one of the characters left me quite confused, to name a few complaints. But Bust doesn’t have to be perfect – it’s raw, like everything the fire left in its wake.
What Bust does is exactly what art needs to do. It needs to respond to and reflect the world around us, drawing people outside the events into the lives of those affected by them. Maybe there’s time in the future for a carefully crafted script with every word and choice agonised over, but the power of this play lies in its immediacy to the events it’s based on.
Bust is a show about people who don’t often feature on Edmonton’s stages. It’s about the people who live and work up in Fort McMurray, driving a good part of our economy (whether you like to admit it or not). And, more specifically, people who love Fort McMurray – choosing to make a life in the community instead of only being there for the paycheque working in the oil industry provides.
And instead of inviting Edmontonians to gawk at those who lost everything, Bust is sympathetic to the fact that these characters have a life before and after the fire. Not only does playwright Matthew Mackenzie show how people’s lives were torn apart by the fire, but also how they were already being torn apart before the fire. The characters Matthew has created are full-fledged and real – from drug addictions to the joy of watching your children play sports to chocolate doughnut holes to missing the stains on the former ceiling of your burnt-down house.
The chemistry of the cast reminded me that I am and always will be someone looking from the outside in at that event, but hopefully, those who were impacted will feel the same solidarity the cast appears to have. In particular, Laura Brovold and Louise Lambert who played sisters Laura and Carmell respectively had that way of interacting (fed up one minute, tender the next) as only siblings really can. Brandon Coffey (who was born in Fort McMurray) as Ty portrays a fun-loving father who hides his true feelings beneath jokes. Christopher Schulz as Barry, Ty’s scene partner for the majority of the play, provides a counterpoint to Ty’s fun-loving nature. Barry was really the only character I couldn’t connect to, with his extended introspection standing out in a play largely featuring more down-to-earth characters. As Barry’s wife Laura, Laura Brovold’s anxiety and reflectiveness really drove the play forward for me, while being balanced by Louise Lambert’s no-nonsense, take-charge Carmell.
With regards to the storyline, the underlying story about a hockey game gone (terribly) wrong didn’t quite resonate with me. Living and watching hockey in “oil country”, I understand how people are emotionally invested in sports at all levels and sometimes use sports as a metaphor for real life. As a dramatic device, I also understand there has to be a reason for the story and the dialogue being presented. But, if I’m being honest, the storyline about the hockey game felt like a distraction that didn’t add enough for me. I know hockey fans and especially hockey parents take their hockey seriously, but I think because I didn’t get as invested in hockey as a symbol of Alberta and strength as I should have at the outset of the play, that plot didn’t resonate with me.
Finally, I have to make mention of Cory Sincennes’ beautiful set design. Bust‘s set was reminiscent of my all-time favourite set design (also by Cory Sincennes) – the set of Where the Blood Mixes. By being multi-levelled, the stage gives the actors a chance to walk around – up and down and zig-zagging – and makes the stage seem bigger than it actually is. Cory has also added these simple, but effective, massive trees that convincingly evoke a forest without obstructing the actors onstage and provide a whole new dimension to the Roxy on Gateway’s playing space, emphasising the height and openness of the space.
Bust by Matthew Mackenzie plays at The Roxy on Gateway until February 26. Tickets are $24 – $28 through Theatre Network’s box office. Tuesdays (February 14 and 21) are two-for-one tickets and there will be a talk-back after the show (approximately 9:30) on Friday, February 17.