Extraction carries too much reserve
By Tim Carlson. Directed by Amiel Gladstone. A Theatre Conspiracy production. At the Cultch’s Historic Theatre on Tuesday, March 5. Continues until March 9
And that, as a friend of mine used to say, is how the elephant got its spots. In other words, what the hell was that about?
Theoretically, at least, Extraction explores Canada’s development of the tar sands and China’s emergence as a superpower. Tim Carlson, who wrote the script, has selected stories that mostly allow the show’s three performers to speak directly from their real-life experiences. Jason Wilson is a Dene guy who worked as a safety officer in camps near Fort McMurray. Jimmy Mitchell, who grew up in Saskatchewan, has served in Canada’s foreign service in Shanghai and Taipei. And Sunny Sun, who was born in Inner Mongolia and who worked in Beijing as an IT consultant, moved to Vancouver three years ago.
But the stories that Carlson has these people tell are so tangential and minor that they are almost invisible. We all know that traffic in Beijing has become horrific, so why have Sun recount her memory of trying to get home one cold winter night and accepting a ride in a car from a businessman, a ride in which—spoiler alert—nothing happens? Wilson appeared as an actor on TV’s North of 60 for a while. Okay. But why show us a clip in which his character gets into a fight in a store? Yes, these elements relate to their tellers’ environments, but if you’re not sophisticated enough to realize that the residents of Beijing aren’t the “other” and that guys who work in the tar sands aren’t demons, you’re probably not going to the theatre.
And the telling of these tales is crushingly nontheatrical. To their great credit, all of the performers are charming. Wilson’s unpretentious good humour is particularly engaging. But in director Amiel Gladstone’s minimalist response to the flat text, they mostly stand and deliver or sit and deliver. As they do so, we see both still and moving images on the back wall. But who the hell needs to watch the performers in their neighbourhoods—just walking, taking transit, or soundlessly talking?
Like a lot of shows these days, Extraction tries to be technologically cool. The performers take repeated audience surveys and invite folks with cellphones to text their responses. “Have you or anyone in your family worked in the resource extraction industry?” “Do you speak more than one language at home?” But none of this is ever more than mildly interesting and it takes too long to get the results. As we wait, we listen to more stories, or to what sounds like Chinese elevator music played by the esteemed musicians Ron Samworth and Randy Raine-Reusch.
Extraction does make a point about language. It’s important whether we use the term oil sands or tar sands, for instance. But who doesn’t know that already?
Part of our cultural cynicism these days is that politics are considered uncool, even pointless. Maybe that’s where the reserve and abstraction in Extraction come from. Whatever the source, the results are boring. Carlson is a smart guy and sometimes he’s an innovative artist, but, as I see it, Canada’s huge contributions to global warming demand an urgent response. Here, Carlson picks up the fiddle and stares at it while Rome burns.