By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The Theatre Network mainstage is overhung with canvases, dropped at every angle, catching the light in different ways. The back wall, the horizon of the theatre, is a single canvas, and a vertical black line moves across it, searching, it seems, for the perfect dimensions of the landscape.
It’s a stunning sight, a beautiful theatre of art — a collaboration of set designer (Briana Kolybaba), lighting designer (Even Gilchrist), and projection designer (Ian Jackson).
Theatre Network opens their first full season at the new Roxy with with a strange and wonderful fantasia, an original meditation of sorts on art and the making of art, and the contradictions that drive the artist.
The character at the centre of Eugene Stickland’s new play The Innocence of Trees, a TN commission years in the creating, is Agnes Martin, the Saskatchewan-born painter — troubled in life, perplexing at times in her pronouncements, rigorously disciplined in her art — who made abstract expressionism her own. Witness her distinctive six by six-foot gridwork canvases hanging on the walls of the big New York galleries including MOMA.
She is wonderfully, unflinchingly, played in all her contradictions by Maralyn Ryan in one of her most compelling performances ever. Martin, whose name you might never have heard, exists in two selves, at two ages, in The Innocence of Trees. It’s an encounter between Ryan as the older artist who struggles through the scorching fire of schizophrenia with a philosophy that puts happiness first, and the young incarnation of herself, at 10, trapped in a harsh, unlovely childhood in a bleak Saskatchewan farmyard.
That girl is played by Emma Ryan, a fine young actor (and recent U of A theatre grad) who happens to be Maralyn Ryan’s granddaughter. The lineage of Edmonton theatre can just amaze you sometimes. In Bradley Moss’s production, which creates the intricate illusion of simplicity in the most ingenious theatrical ways, theatre genealogy gives a particular frisson to glimpses of the older Agnes in the younger, a prisoner of horizons that always recede. “There’s so much out there and yet there’s nothing,” says young Agnes, chafing at her confines and the flat lines of her world. “Why doesn’t anything ever happen now?”
The older Agnes, not much given to consolation, is wry as she faces the fact that “if I thought this was a journey of recovery” — a journey towards “joy, happiness, innocence, beauty” in the past, as she says — “I was overly optimistic.” And Emma Ryan’s delicate, thoughtful performance as the younger Agnes gives us hints of that sturdy clear-sightedness to come.
And yet innocence is a notion that Martin returns to, again and again. The play is named for a famously enigmatic Agnes Martin quote about the origins of her vision (cited in Peter Schjeldahl’s 2004 New Yorker piece about her). “I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then a grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence … so I painted it and then I was satisfied.”
The central contradiction that playwright Stickland explores, one that makes his play mystifying and fascinating (and eminently discussable), is the artist’s own signature: the “beauty and freedom” of the grid. Which seems like a sort of tantalizing oxymoron. One of the durable inspirations of the Saskatchewan landscape? But even ocean waves, which ripple across canvases in the production, are a grid of points of light, in Martin’s vision.
It’s an intriguing puzzle that Martin, and Stickland’s play, present us. The supremacy in art of intuition and feeling over intellect is Martin’s credo. And yet, grids, advised by the voices in her head, are the product of mathematical calculations, as you see from Jackson’s projection-scape playing across the hanging canvases. I came away with a new appreciation of the tension for artists between control and inspiration.
The play, the performances, and Moss’s airy and spacious production revel in this playground of art, beautifully set forth in Kolybaba’s lovely design. Cellist Morag Northey, collaborating with Darrin Hagen, plays live over underscoring. And the sound is a rich texture of emotional riffs, sometimes harsh and jagged, woven with tiny allusions to changes of scene. As clouds flicker across the canvases, you hear a tiny whiff of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now or Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies. When Martin sets up her New York studio, there’s a lick or two of New York New York.
It’s in the spirit of the play, maybe, to think about what The Innocence of Trees isn’t. It isn’t a biography, though it’s inspired by one. It’s isn’t play about child abuse or mental illness, though both figure in Martin’s story of turning to art and craving beauty. Rebuffed by a cold brute of a mother she turns inward, an orientation not without its dangers, and finds the discipline to be self-reliant and people-resistant there. It’s why she leaves New York mid-career, and why she loves the off-the-grid isolation of her remote mesa in New Mexico. “Maybe artists aren’t meant to have friends like normal people.”
I did wonder that at the outset of The Innocence of Trees about the meta- touch of having the meeting of the two selves of Agnes Martin happen across time in a theatre, in front of an audience (“you are not my friends!”), in a play they both acknowledge. Older Agnes is waving a script. “Be careful not to deviate,” she advises Younger Agnes, who wonders why. But late in The Innocence of Trees, you’ll see the play and the production bring this home, in a strange and very moving scene.
There’s something so brave about Agnes’s unsentimental gaze, about her matter-of-fact way of facing what she sees, about her drive to create beauty from what she feels, and to hold her art unforgivingly to account for that — all captured in Maralyn Ryan’s performance. I can’t fully explain why, but it brought tears to my eyes.
I’ll just say that as the launch for a new season in a new theatre, it could hardly be better. Theatre Network is back.
p.s. Go early, or stay after the show to see the exhibit of David Woodman’s photography of the road trip he took with Agnes Martin. Downstairs, there’s a series, each minutely different, of Martin’s small penciled grid pieces (On A Clear Day) and a projection wall in the Lorne Cardinal Theatre.
The Innocence of Trees
Theatre: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 10708 124 St.
Written by: Eugene Stickland
Directed by: Bradley Moss
Starring: Maralyn Ryan and Emma Ryan, with Morag Northey
Running: through Dec. 11
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca