Culture & Conversation

One Man’s Poison is Another Man’s Seeds

Montreal’s Porte Parole docu-theatre company tested the waters in Toronto recently with Annabel Soutar’s 2005 play Seeds, with veteran actor Eric Peterson starring. Seeds drew in the crowds at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (February 18 to March 10). It’s coming back to Montreal June as part of Festival TransAmériques.

A co-production with Crow’s Theatre, directed by Chris Abraham, the Toronto run played to packed (often sold-out) houses. Critical acclaim was wide, though not unanimous. Most, however, were far more celebratory in their reviews, with The National Post’s Robert Cushman calling the play “one of the most impressive docu-dramas” he’d ever seen. An excited review by Robert Coulbourn in the Toronto Sun spoke of the “seed” of doubt sewn by the play, big enough, he wrote, “to shake your view of the world to its very foundations and leave you pondering, in a very real sense, the meaning of life.” The Montreal Gazette’s Pat Donnelly was also in town for the show, and was “completely enthralled” by this “thinker’s theatre.” The Torontoist blog gave the play four stars out of five.

On the other hand, The Globe and Mail’s Martin Morrow found it “overlong and unwieldy,” and Robert Crew of The Toronto Star deemed the play “somewhat heavy and undigested.”

Happily, Montrealers will soon have a second (and third) chance to judge for themselves: with Abraham at the helm, this new cast will perform in the city this summer as part of the Festival TransAmérique (June 7, 8, 9), though Peterson will be replaced this time around by actor David Ferry.  Francophone Montreal will soon get a taste as well, with an all-new French production translated by playwright Fanny Britt slated to follow in September at the Théâtre La Licorne (dates still to be determined). The two-part revival of this excellent work is welcome news. When it first opened here in 2005, Seeds garnered the Best English-language Production award from the Association québécoise des critiques de théâtre (AQCT), and was nominated as well for Best Original Script by the Académie québécoise de théâtre.

The play is the story of Saskatchewan’s Percy Schmeiser, a canola farmer who in 1998 found himself at the centre of a storm over genetically modified crops. Monsanto, the world’s foremost bio-tech giant and creators of Agent Orange, sued Schmeiser for patent infringement after finding unlicensed herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready(TM) canola on his land. Schmeiser has always maintained that the crops were contaminated by cross-pollination with neighbouring GM fields. Monsanto disputes this, but wasn’t able to prove their contention that Schmeiser had acquired the seeds illegally. Schmeiser’s case was ultimately unsuccessful, and the Supreme Court found in a 5-4 ruling that Schmeiser had infringed Monsanto’s patent rights by knowingly replanting the GM seeds even if he hadn’t initially put them there. Despite the defeat, the case succeeded in propelling the issues of transgenic crops and farmers’ rights to international attention – and Schmeiser to international prominence.

Seeds is many things, and far more than your common trip to the theatre. It’s a thoughtful engagement with some of the world’s timeliest and most pressing issues of the 21st century. It’s riveting theatre bolstered by brilliant performances, a script laced with intrigue and insight, an innovative narrative structure, and playful and creative staging and design. But undergirding the nuts and bolts of this masterful creation, Seeds is fuelled by an ethical and philosophical reflection: What is life, and what does it mean for humans to modify it? Who owns life, and what does it mean for Monsanto to patent a gene – to patent, in essence, the very building blocks of life? How are we transforming the ancient practice of agriculture, and what does it mean for the future of our food supply?

These are big questions, and Seeds, quite astutely, refrains from providing easy answers. On the one side, there are Monsanto’s claims of “feeding a hungry world” by rendering crop yields more productive. On the other, of course, are a host of issues related to food safety, corporate hegemony and influence, and farmers’and consumers’ rights.  Taking the landmark David and Goliath case of Monsanto versus Schmeiser, the play, while in no way detached from the outcome, avoids the easy temptation of falling into an indignant anti-Monsanto exposé. Instead, playwright Annabel Soutar has crafted a thoughtful and sophisticated conversation that invites active engagement and flatters the audience’s intelligence.

Porte Parole specializes in (bilingual) documentary theatre, and the synergy between Seeds’s two layers, namely the journalistic and the theatrical, is the central component of its success. The rigorous documentary foundation on which the play rests is impressive, and provides a solid structure for the work’s dramatic overlay. Assembled verbatim from transcripts of court proceedings and interviews conducted with Schmeiser, a Monsanto spokeswoman, farmers, experts and activists, Soutar’s engrossing script is in the best traditions of investigative journalism.  These disparate threads are then woven together by a sympathetic playwright-narrator – radiantly embodied by Liisa Repo-Martell – who takes us along on her winding investigation, channeling her impassioned inquisitiveness into the suspense and intrigue of a legal whodunnit.

The force of Seeds is in the dramatic enactments. Without overt fictionalization – their lines, recall, are reproduced verbatim from interviews – the dramatization of the figures lends an immediacy to their presence that surpasses even the power of documentary film. We feel the figures in the room with us, and the dramatic interplay of claims and counterclaims places the audience at the heart of the exchange. Nothing in this play is black and white, and even the Monsanto spokesperson (Cary Lawrence), though not endearing herself to the audience, is still given free reign to articulate her views, and succeeds in casting a pall over the character of the affable Schmeiser. Offering the most forceful riposte to the Monsanto line is the passionate spokesperson for the Council of Canadians, played here with panache by Maria Inger. Along the way, we hear from university professors, scientists, judges and lawyers, and there’s even a whimsical cameo by Indian activist “Vandana Shiva” in the deliciously typical role of Earth Conscience. From beginning to end, the debate is made accessible by the care taken to demystify the science around GMOs, while always respecting the capacity of the lay person to pose their own questions and draw their own conclusions.

Thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end, Seeds is a tour de force, deftly marshalling the singular powers of the theatre in the service of a crucial and timely civic debate. This is a form of theatre that Canada desperately needs – and a play that Montrealers should be sure not to miss when it returns to the city this summer.

Rover supporters can get two free tickets to Seeds by making a donation to our Indiegogo fundraising campaign. Visit www.indiegogo.com/therover.

Seeds is playing June 7 (7pm), June 8 (7pm) and June 9 (4pm) at the Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui located at 3900 Rue Saint-Denis.  Tickets are $30 (under 30/over 65: $25). For more information, visit the festival’s website at http://www.fta.qc.ca/en/shows/2012/seeds

 


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