By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In Smoke, getting its Edmonton premiere Thursday at Co*Lab, a woman opens her apartment door to discover that the past has showed up.
Aiden’s -ex is there to confront her about allegations she’s made to a mutual friend that she was sexually assaulted at a university party two years before.
“I’ve never had a play where people have had such different interpretations of both characters,” says playwright Elena Belyea, the artistic director and presiding muse of the sharp-toothed indie theatre Tiny Bear Jaws. Director Jenna Rodgers calls it “a play with two protagonists…. Both characters are likeable and deeply, evidently, flawed. A lot of the work is to continue practising not taking a side.”
The subject matter of Smoke is flammable, to be sure, and nothing if not timely. And the provocation is further fuelled, intriguingly and unavoidably, by the double casting and considerations of gender. Aiden is played by Jade Robinson and the text remains “98 per cent the same,” says Belyea. But on some nights Jordan is played by a man (Gabriel Richardson), some nights by a woman (Hayley Moorhouse).
“The casting,” says Rodgers, who’s also the dramaturge, “forces us to think about the way we map reactions onto different bodies.” The actors’ two takes on Jordan, though armed with the same words, are very different. And, Belyea adds, “Jade’s performance is definitely different depending on who she’s playing with…. It’s exciting to see that actors can do so many things with the same text.”
“In a play about sexual assault, the automatic assumption is that the sex of the perpetrator is male and the sex of the victim is female. And that is not always the case.”
Smoke has smouldered for a long time. It premiered at Downstage Theatre in Calgary in 2019 after development in Toronto, at Nightwood Theatre’s Write From The Hip Playwriting Unit and workshops at Tarragon. But it was in Edmonton that Belyea (Cleave, Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable, I Don’t Even Miss You) felt the spark that would become Smoke.
It was Wild Side’s 2016 production of The Realistic Joneses that “blew my head apart,” says Belyea of the odd and oddly funny play by the American writer Will Eno about two couples and the complicated dynamics in perception and language that underpin them. “I went home, still buzzing, and started writing that night.” The scene in which Jordan is at the door asking to come in was the start of Smoke.
The news of the moment contributed to Smoke, too, as Belyea explains — for one thing, allegations about Jian Ghomeshi as a serial sexual abuser; for another, the disastrous Fort McMurray fire. So it started with the encounter between “a woman and her parter trying to unpack together whether a sexual assault occurred,” says Belyea. Then “based on my experience as a queer woman, lamenting some of the assumptions people automatically jump to about gender,” other dramatic possibilities occurred to her. “How would the play would be different if Jordan was played by a woman?”
Would questions of sexual assault, rape and consent be different in queer relationships? Rodgers, who’d worked as a dramaturge on the Downstage production, was fascinated to examine audience assumptions and “the ways an audience might respond differently to the same text. … No matter what mental training we have, no matter what we think we understand about consent.” As she points out, theatre people “just assume we have so much in common…. Smoke is “a very large opportunity to encourage conversation in a community that’s often caught preaching to the choir.”
Says Belyea “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a show where I hear the audience so much — people having opinions, people being surprised….”
“Both characters are, intentionally, really likeable.” Both the script and Rodgers’ direction “actively disrupt the archetype of what a good survivor looks like, what a potential abuser looks like.” Each version of the play “is made to hold up on its own,” Belyea says. Even if audience members don’t see both versions of the show, just knowing that there’s another cast, other possibilities of presenting the script, changes things. “In a strange little way,” says Rodgers, the three actors “do kind of function as an ensemble.”
“The main question I had while writing Smoke,” says Belyea, “is what if someone had hurt me, or betrayed me profoundly what would it take for me to forgive them? Or if I found out I had caused immense harm to someone that I had loved very very much, what lengths would I go to try and repair that?”
At a distance, Smoke, with its serious set-up and subject matter under investigation, might seem like “a 90-minute slog” of a prospect, Belyea says cheerfully. “But it’s also a fun and funny play I think… That’s part of what makes it uncomfortable!”
And, says Rodgers, “I think there’s an ambitious amount of spectacle for a little space.” You may anticipate talking heads. “But there are also some aesthetic surprises!”
Theatre: Tiny Bear Jaws
Written by: Elena Belyea
Directed by: Jenna Rodgers
Starring: Jade Robinson (Aiden), Hayley Moorhouse (Jordan), Gabe Richardson (Jordan)
Where: Co*Lab, 9641 102A Ave.
Running: Thursday through July 1
Tickets: Tiny Bear Jaws