Wrinkles in the mind

Bringing essays to life: Foster-Wallace, Suzuki/Cullis on PuSh stages

Heady table talk. Images: Matt Rezenk, PuSh Festival

“Age,” according to Michel de Montaigne, “imprints more wrinkles in the mind than it does on the face.” And he knew whereof he spoke by the time he penned that, in the late 16th century, when his “grey hairs gave [him] some authority.”

He’d already spent his entire writing life in mental self-portraiture, trying to capture the subtle byplay of his thought. From the French verb “to try” he derived the name “Essay” for the newfangled literary form he invented. Yet his ideas kept imprinting quirky new channels – wrinkles – faster than he could pin them down.

Of all literary forms – fable, horror, ode, farce, romance – the essay is probably the hardest, and rarest, to bring to the stage. And no wonder, as its subjects tend to be immaterial, like thoughts, and sit static and composed, like portraits.

Yet there’s drama inherent in a well-lined face, if you know how to look for it. And the wrinklier the better.

Two of this year’s PuSh Fest productions bring off the rare feat of spinning essays into riveting theatre. Each show goes about it in its own quirky way.

Essayist, science explicator and broadcast personality David Suzuki is probably Canada’s best known environmental advocate. Together with his wife, Tara Cullis – herself an author, literary scholar and activist  – they’re widely hailed as godparents of the worldwide Green movement.

But in What You Won’t Do for Love, we meet them not through their published opus, but rather through the intimate and revealing lens of their decades-long love story. The play is still a work-in-progress, but PuSh audiences got to see it in an advanced stage of development at a one-off workshop presentation in New Westminster’s Anvil Centre.

The show is the handiwork of Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes of Toronto’s Why Not Theatre, a power couple in their own right (co-developers of a new Mahabharata in this year’s upcoming Shaw Festival). But in the Anvil workshop, they appeared as supporting facilitators only, with the starring roles reserved for Suzuki and Cullis in person.

The framework is a convivial dinner, with Jain and Fernandes as admiring hosts who pour the wine and download their distinguished guests. The audience is arrayed, theatre-in-the-round style, on three sides of the circular table. An overhead camera beams a top-down view of the tabletop in real-time onto a cyclorama screen.

Scattered amidst the stemware and hors d’oeuvres is a hodgepodge of Suzuki-Cullis memorabilia – snapshots, clippings, papers, souvenirs – which serve as reminiscent talking points. Photos of Canada’s World War II Japanese internment camps, a seminal memory for 82-year-old Suzuki, tells us a lot about how he acquired his lifelong passion for social – and, eventually, ecological – justice.

A studio portrait of Cullis as an earnest 20-something grad student (“looks like Rita Hayworth,” according to Suzuki) bespeaks her determination to win that man (13 years her senior and already a celebrity) so they could get past this noisome distraction of mating and get on with their joint life of service.

We hear about the charms and trials of an intercultural marriage and the logistic travails of raising children while spearheading a cause. They expound their left-brain/right-brain theory of how they complement one another. Left-brain dominant as he is (logical, scientific, yang), he’s at a loss without her right-brain support (intuitive, poetic, yin).

Along the way they do get to squeeze off some disquisitions on their Green themes, but always in the dramatic context of their life stories. Their adoring on their grandchildren, for instance, lend a poignant urgency and concreteness to their hopes and fears for the planet. Rather than serving up discursive polemics, they offer us their memoirs as an essay in how to live responsibly. At Anvil Centre, they preached to a responsive choir, judging from their standing ovation.

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