By Sebastien Archibald, Kevin Loring, and Quelemia Sparrow. Directed by Chelsea Haberlin, with John Cooper. Produced by ITSAZOO Productions and Savage Society, in association with Gateway Theatre and Neworld Theatre. At Gateway Theatre Saturday, March 11. Continues until March 18
Oil is in everything. Even our toothbrushes and pens, which troubles Quelemia Sparrow. In the opening minutes of The Pipeline Project, she laments, “What do I do with all my pens?”
Sparrow is one of three writer-performers—the other two are Sebastien Archibald and Kevin Loring—who guide us through this peculiar work. It’s not a play in the classical sense, as there’s no plot, very little drama, and the actors play themselves.
Instead, it’s a collage of theatrical forms and mixed media: monologues, dialogues, found-video projections, news segments, witness statements, and even puppetry. I came to think of it as a theatrical documentary.
Part of the 75-minute first act is a table play. It begins with the three performers discussing ideas for a new play called The Pipeline Project. This is very “meta”, in a just-out-of-theatre-school way that felt stale when I first encountered it 20 years ago.
That line of inquiry is mercifully abandoned, as their conversation meanders through an ecosystem of progressive hot-button topics—the unceded territory of First Nations, residential schools, carbon footprints, and SUVs versus bikes.
Much of their dialogue revolves around the two First Nations performers (Loring and Sparrow) educating a pre-woke Archibald about their experiences. These were the show’s most lively bits, as a 95 percent white, baby-boomer audience bore witness to the weary patience of Sparrow and Loring.
Those discourses are interwoven with an array of multimedia set pieces. For a small production—the theatre seats just 100 people—Conor Moore’s lighting and projection work and Troy Slocum’s sound design were dazzling.
The show’s racing, oratorical style was a challenge for the performers, as they each stumbled over their lines at least once. I can’t blame them, given the density of the script and, often, no fellow actor to play off of.
The show is also unapologetically, polemically one-sided. While I sympathize with the creators’ politics, I’d have welcomed the conflict that might arise from a thoughtful rebuttal about globalism and economic development.
The show’s second act features a guest speaker, different every night, and a talkback session with the audience. Paul Kariya, executive director of Clean Energy B.C., spoke eloquently on the show’s interconnected themes, and asked the audience to take “radical individual action” for the good of our planet.
The production is inspired by Extract: The Pipeline Wars, a 2012 book by contributors to the Vancouver Observer. It felt, at times, like the show’s creators wanted to capture something from all 36 chapters. Why not simply pick the most compelling story in the book and write a play around that?
I admire any show that takes on heavyweight topics like The Pipeline Project does, but it was difficult to connect with the show’s documentary form. Its sum was less than its parts.