Sexual assault, scorched earth, and the fire that burns: Smoke, a review

Gabe Richardson, Jade Robinson in Smoke, Tiny Bear Jaws. Photo by Brianne Jang.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Smoke is both of the air and the earth. And so is Elena Belyea’s challenging and elusive play, getting its Edmonton premiere at Co*Lab in a Tiny Bear Jaws production with two casts.  

Smoke is set in the smouldering ruins of a relationship that has either burned out entirely, or maybe hasn’t. And at the centre of it, the hot ember so to speak, is a sexual assault and the related question of consent. And since Smoke is questing for clarity through the smoke-filled territory of gender, and audiences assumptions about gender, Jenna Rodgers’s production alternates casts: one night the relationship is heterosexual, the next night queer.

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We meet two post-collegiate characters who are, not coincidentally, both aspiring artists, one a poet and one a storyteller. And, as artists do, they use the raw materials of real life to create. Aiden (always played by Jade Robinson) is writing the once-upon-a-time fable of a town razed to the ground by “a giant fire,” re-built built over and over again only to burn again. We see Jordan (played by Gabriel Richardson the night I saw Smoke), doing final edits on a volume of verse called “Bloom,” at a book launch, reading a poem called Anxiety. The sound design (by Daniela Fernandez) has an uneasy kind of anxious buzz to it. 

Jade Robinson, Hayley Moorhouse in Smoke, the second cast in the Tiny Bear Jaws production. Photo by Brianne Jang

One night a fateful knocking at Aiden’s door reveals Jordan, there to confront his erstwhile lover about the allegations of sexual assault she’s confided to mutual friends. This presents itself on initial impact, at least to me, as an unwelcome encounter between a victim and her abuser, not least because Aiden is a fragile-looking Asian-Canadian woman and Jordan is, though genial and appealing, a big strapping guy. 

Aiden is a tinderbox of wounded fury. Jordan seems genuinely perplexed. He swears repeatedly he has no idea what she’s talking about, only that she vanished from his life without explanation. And he is believable. It takes a while to unspool time, back to a university party, with all the university party trimmings like an argument and drunk sex. Their memories are very different. What happens, not least to the audience, when two opposing perceptions collide is what Smoke is about — partly. But it’s also about the toxic, unbreathable smoke of trauma.

Belyea’s script is a complex volley of cross-hatched fragments; her ear for cadence is uncanny. The play, like its chosen metaphor, is stoked by accusation and resistance, out-and-out rebuttal, shards of shared memories, manipulatory tactics that get called, or don’t. Ah, and ancillary factors like artistic competitiveness. If there’s such a thing in this country as success as a poet (for another discussion another time), Jordan is gaining traction; Aiden is a collector of rejection notices. 

It’s surprising, moment by moment; Smoke seems (to mix my own metaphors) to come at you in waves that subside momentarily into apparent calm, tiny sparks that flame out in one place and get re-ignited somewhere else. And under Rodgers’ direction, the rhythms of the play are always disconcerting — it’s a nerve-wrackingly watchable experience. And Robinson and Richardson make every moment, even those that are wildly improbable on paper, possible and even plausible, shocking though they are. 

I must admit I have reservations about one of those developments in particular (and wonder how that would play out in the queer relationship version of Smoke that co-stars Hayley Moorhouse). But I must leave it with you, in the interests of not spoiling the surprises that are the infrastructure of the play. 

“This isn’t a story about what caused the fire,” Aiden’s story tells us. “It’s about what happened after….” And so here we are, immersed in a play that’s built on reactions to a sexual assault, while resisting  definitive answers about cause, blame and even the “truth” of the assault. Which leads Smoke, incrementally, away from the he said/she said scenario, unresolvable here, to the burning question of what it will take to satisfy Aiden. And how far Jordan will go to fix a crime he definitely declares he did not commit, as a kind of reparation.   

Here’s a dramatic concept to wrap your wits around: a play that’s built on reactions to a sexual assault that’s not about sexual assault. In a life incinerated by trauma, can you start all over again, from the ground up? Is the scorched earth policy the way to go? Smoke wonders about that; it stays in your lungs.

Check out the 12thnight preview of Smoke here, an interview with playwright Elena Belyea and director Jenna Rodgers.

REVIEW

Smoke

Theatre: Tiny Bear Jaws

Written by: Elena Belyea

Starring: Jade Robinson, Gabriel Richardson (alternate nights) and Hayley Moorhouse (alternate nights)

Where: Co*Lab, 9641 102 A Ave

Running: through July 1

Tickets and masking/vaccination specifics: tinybearjaws.square.site

 

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