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Guernica (Hidden Harlequin Theatre)

Edmonton Fringe 2011, Venue 26, Phabrik Art and Design Centre

Play by Erika Luckert. Directed by Jon Lachlan Stewart. Designed by Kevin Boyer. With Alyson Dicey, Lauren Kneteman, Joëlle Préfontaine, Zvonimir Rac, Mat Simpson and Nikolai Witschl.

The Edmonton Journal has oversold this show as a 4.5 on its 5-star system. It has done so for understandable reasons: this short play about events in the town of Guernica, Spain the day it was hit by bombs by the German Luftwaffe and the Italian Aviazionne Legionaria in a military operation, Operation Rügen, designed to help put Franco and the Nationalists into power, is written by a local playwright, Erika Luckert. It is important for local media to rally around new, locally produced dramatic work. It is also important, though, to hold new, local work to the standards to which reviewers would hold well-established dramatic work, and distinguish between the writing and the quality of the production.

The writing in this play mimics the style of Picasso’s painting: it is stark, non-naturalistic, and crude. Its depiction of character is as blunt and simple as Picasso’s.

Detail from Picasso's Guernica (1937)

That is not necessarily a criticism. There are all kinds of theatre. But I wish Luckert’s play assembled a more interesting group of characters for her depiction of the people of Guernica going about their day — market day in town — just before the bombs hit. For women, we get a distinctly clichéed assortment: a little girl, a mother, and a prostitute (sigh). Unfortunately, there isn’t anything particularly interesting about either the first or the last. Luckert is more adventurous in the writing of the male characters, who include a husband off to buy cauliflower and chili peppers for his pregnant wife and a fruit- and vegetable-seller who speaks about the colours of his wares as if every time he sells one of them he is selling a piece of a still life. (That’s inspired.) But it is strange that these characters have so little to say or so little to suggest about the social tensions and political developments behind the bombing of Guernica.

The social tensions enter only obliquely, from an upper-class mother concerned with things such as how her daughter holds herself in public. She doesn’t want anyone imagining that they are poor. And in the play’s most interesting speech, she sneers at the husband hunting for cauliflower that there is no point in him giving his child a name since this name cannot possibly bestow on the child the heritage that would come from being born into a landholding family. That speech is really smart, and I wish there’d been more writing of this kind — more writing that conveyed the social and political tensions that resulted in the bombing of Guernica. Picasso’s painting is vaunted as the most famous anti-war painting ever, and this play, in its generality, may lead people to draw connections between their Fringe entertainment and scenes of carnage playing out right now on the planet in which civilians like the civilians of Guernica are dying, but the specifics of what made that day in Guernica happen ought to matter too.

As it is, the romantic focus on Picasso as the painter who has to deal with the ghosts of that day, and give them another kind of life in his painting, is unfortunate not just because it is hackneyed but because it detracts from the politics. A frame that established that Picasso was struggling for inspiration for the mural he’d been requested to paint for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Expo in Paris when the news about Guernica hit would have added a whole other dimension to the play. And it’s really odd that the director, Jon Lachlan Stewart, does not use the bits of radio news that we hear at the beginning to deliver, quickly, some important historical context. Even the program has nothing to say about the history or the political turmoil behind that day at Guernica. It’s hard to swallow the turning of a day of carnage into art when the art does not adequately convey why the people it is symbolically representing died.

Detail from Picasso's Guernica (1937)

The production also asks, with more than one stylized pause in which the actors strike postures of horror, that we imagine that the actors are the figures in the painting. These moments desperately needed to be lit in ways that would visually distinguish them from the rest of the action and turn them into proper tableaux. And in a short ensemble piece like this, in which each of the actors gets very little individual time to establish their characters, the acting needs to be much sharper and more polished than it generally is here. Mat Simpson as the husband and Nikolai Witschl as a vegetable seller do reasonably well, but only one of the actors, Joëlle Préfontaine, who plays the upper-class mother, delivers a performance that is truly memorable for the right reasons.

P.S. Why no horse?!

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