A great leap forward, by excavating the past: Origin of the Species opens the NLT season. A review.

Holly Turner, Kristin Johston in Origin of Species, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Archaeology, says an elderly member of that profession in Origin of the Species, is “simply knowing where to look.”

It would seem to have that at least in common with theatre, judging by the mysterious discoveries of Northern Light Theatre and an artistic director who unearths the highly unusual season after season.

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NLT launches the current season with Trevor Schmidt’s  Canadian premiere of this quirky early two-hander by the Brit playwright Bryony Lavery (Frozen, The Believers) — an odd and oddly touching little fable about time, evolution, inheritance, the myth of progress, and extinction. Origin of the Species has a sitcom skeleton and a feminist heart (not to mention a wry vision of science). 

Molly the archaeologist (Holly Turner) has a New Year’s Eve story to tell us about going on a dig to the Olduvai Gorge in Africa in search of a perfect man. In an act of cradle-robbing from the very cradle of civilization as she says, Molly smuggles back the remains of a woman instead, “a crime of passion.” The four-million-year-old (Kristin Johnston) comes to life with a kiss in fairy-tale fashion, and Molly names her Victoria in honour of her grandma.

Kristin Johnston and Holly Turner in Origin of the Species, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

So Origin of the Species is a mismatched roommate comedy of sorts, a reinvention of the human-out-of-time premise that peppers the comedy repertoire (I’m thinking, for no good reason, of Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man).

Molly, a delightfully eccentric and conversationally shrewd character as created by Turner, has to “fill in a four million-year time gap.” In a motherly turn (“good girl!”) she teaches her wary young-old charge how to put on a cardigan, how to use language, and hold a pencil — and in an escalation of sophistication how to think and how to imagine. The increments are negotiated with finesse by Johnston, an alert, impressively kinetic performer with real stage presence

A sweet and amusing relationship develops, as charted in Schmidt’s production. And it turns out that Victoria has things to teach Molly too. In four million years, the He/Him/ His-centric view of human history has made false claims stick. Man didn’t invent fire, for example; it was Woman, taking a cue from volcanoes. Contrary to popular wisdom Man doesn’t have exclusive proprietorship over the invention (and lethal use) of weaponry. And as for thinking….

Molly’s home turf, as designed by director Schmidt with gorgeous (and dramatically purposeful) lighting by Elise Jason, is the beautiful clutter of a civilized mind that collects — artifacts, books, diverse memorabilia, knowledge. Ah yes, and an assortment of every kind of clock, ticking and chiming and reduced at times to a sort of human pulse (sound design by Kiidra Duhault).

Origin of the Species, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photograph

Clocks and time figure prominently, though the play reintroduces the idea of extinction (the “vanishing clock”) in an awkwardly compressed and to me unsatisfying way in the last quarter of the play — after an opening that is, thanks to Turner’s appealingly chipper, confidential tone, genial and leisurely. Origin of the Species seems to be a play looking for more length. 

But maybe it’s all a New Year’s Eve dream of fulfilment and continuity, and a way forward from a scientist with imagination, who has found her fellow scientists wanting in that capacity. The ending, after all, is a rebirth of a species whose potential hasn’t been explored — not even close. And the womanly future awaits.  

REVIEW

Origin of the Species

Theatre: Northern Light Theatre

Written by: Bryony Lavery

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Holly Turner, Kristin Johnston

Where: Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: through Oct. 27

Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com

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