Presented by Scapegoat Carnivale Theatre at MAI Centre, March 14 – 24.
It’s too late to catch Yev, Scapegoat Carnivale’s play about solitude in the vast wilderness of the Siberia Taiga, but I have a feeling that this compact little gem will be turning up again in the future.
Scapegoat Carnivale have become one of Montreal’s most original and enjoyably eccentric companies. Their mounting last year of the 10th century oddity, Sapientia, written by ultra-devout nun Hroswitha of Gandersheim, showed a commitment to the peculiar way beyond the call of duty. What took it even further out of the way was the company’s treatment of that obscure piece (apparently Europe’s first ever female-authored play), with the Christian heroine, her three martyrdom-seeking daughters and their Roman persecutors all played by household objects. The result was one of the most wickedly funny and strangely powerful productions of the year (it picked up a Most Outstanding Independent Theatre Production gong at the METAs).
In some ways, Scapegoat’s latest show touches on the religious themes of Sapientia. Its heroine, a member of the Russian sect of Old Believers, has fled into exile to escape Stalin’s purges. But it also returns to the territory of Scapegoat’s 2016 show Bar Kapra Squirrel Hunter, an intriguing if not wholly successful play about bizarre goings-on in a remote forest involving a savage conflict between said hunter and his wife.
Yev, which is loosely based on real life Siberian hermit Agafya Lykova, is a marked step forward from Bar Kapra. For one thing, unlike the rather sprawling structure of that play, Yev utilizes a strict commitment to three distinct theatre styles.
The first part is an epistolary dialogue between Yev (Alison Darcy) and McGill student, Matthew (Trevor Barrette), their long-distance communications mediated, with some amusing misunderstandings and gently stern corrections, by forest ranger and translator Nikolai (Davide Chiazzese). Matthew has been pondering a life of solitude, so his fascination with, and idealizing of, his strange pen pal have personal resonances which reverberate throughout the next two sections.
Section 2 sees Nikolai providing a running translation of the correspondences to Matthew from ageing geologist Savorin, played with a real flair for comic rage by Sasha Samar. Savorin, hobbling around on crutches after an unfortunate encounter with a bear trap, is Yev’s neighbor. And, according to him, he has the real goods on her as he spins a garish yarn involving murder, incest and other dark doings in the forest. Can we believe him? Yev’s description of him having an evil soul suggests perhaps not.
But then comes the eerie and darkly funny section 3, which gives a sense of the primal desperation that might well provide a fertile soil for the horrors described by Savorin. A wordless slice of physical theatre wonderfully choreographed as a mixture of slapstick and savagery by fight director Andrew Turner, this section sees Yev and Savorin locked in what looks like an eternal struggle over scraps of food, alcohol, territory and, it seems, sexual dominance.
It all ends with a shocking abruptness which, weirdly enough, gave me a similar sense of disorientation as the finale of The Sopranos, my initial thought being: “Really? That’s it?” But it’s left an echo in the air which is still resonating more than a week later.
If Darcy and Shragge’s sometimes poetic, sometimes stark script takes us deeper into the conflicting realities of Yev’s world one section at a time, Rashomon-style, then so does the set, which Darcy designed herself. At first, we get a narrow strip of playing area in front of black curtain. Then, for Savorin’s Russian monologue (and Nikolai’s translation), we get a blue-tinted diorama of the Taiga landscape. Finally, Yev’s cottage, surrounded by birch trees, bursts into view. Its realism and solidity suggests that this is the only part of the play we can trust as the truth. Yet there’s something surreal about it, as if it’s a part of some ominous fairytale.
What Yev all adds up to, I’m still not sure. But it feels this sense of lingering uncertainty and disquiet is exactly what Scapegoat were after with this beautifully-constructed curiosity.