Theatre at UBC

Song of This Place
by Joy Coghill

Venue: Frederic Wood Theatre - UBC
Dates: 18 - 28 February 2004

Reviewer: Jane Penistan



Director Robert More Costume design Marcus Wu Set and lighting design Robert Gardiner Sound design Michelle Harrison Puppet and mask design Trish Leeper Stage manager Gillian Walpert




Emily CarrFascinated by Emily Carr, well known actress Joy Coghill wanted a play in which she could recreate the famous painter. Since no work seemed forthcoming Joy Coghill extensively researched the letters and published writings of and about Emily Carr and wrote the play herself. Originally produced at the East Cultural Centre in Vancouver, with Joy Coghill playing Frieda, the playwright, with contemporary Joan Orenstein in the title role, this intriguing, ingenious, multi-faceted play is being presented again in Vancouver at the Frederic Wood Theatre at UBC.

The stage is set with a semi-circle of chairs holding a variety of puppets. There are men, women and children gazing at the auditorium. As the lights go down the puppets rise and leave the stage while the chairs fly up into the loft, to hang suspended, as Emily Carr's own chairs did. A scrim rises on a clearing in a grove of tall coniferous trees, quickly invaded by a group of boisterous students, armed with props and the puppets, which they distribute haphazardly, complaining about rehearsing in a forest instead of a theatre. They indulge in banter about Carr and take on the roles of the cat and dog and monkey. Their mocking is interrupted by the arrival of their director, Frieda (Donna White). Frieda is an aging actress in a wheel chair, writer and director of a play about Carr. She wishes to imbue her cast with the reality of what they see in the well-known paintings and speak about in their roles. The students now take up their puppets and manipulate them for the rest of the production, with the director, Frieda, speaking the lines of the various characters, through most of the ensuing scenes. Towards the finale some characters assume the puppet character voice.

Robert More, in the extensive programme notes, has described the way in which the puppets are manipulated and given voice. This is not an easy technique, but the students in the cast have mastered this with uncanny acumen, managing to efface themselves in the characters of their puppets. They have also learnt the skill of physically moving their models with lifelike gait and gesture. These meticulously characterized puppets have been designed and dressed by Trish Leeper. The personality of each puppet is in the face while the clothes echo the dress of those who appear on stage in person, and demonstrate the period of the play. The tight, Victorian manners and mores of the time are visibly portrayed and endorsed in the dialogue.


As the rehearsal proceeds, Emily Carr (Barbara Pollard) herself emerges from the trees and challenges Frieda with ignorance of the difficulties of the life of an artist. But here she meets her match for the actor suffers as much rejection and criticism as the painter. The play deals biographically with incidents in the life of Emily Carr, dramatized by the puppeteers, who also appear as actors in the later episodes of the play. The two women come to a final understanding and mutual respect. The actor/director has learnt much of the suffering and fortitude of the eccentric woman she is trying to portray, and Emily Carr's spirit learns that she is not alone in her suffering as an unrecognized talent, in her socially unorthodox behaviour and in her loneliness.

The music which accompanies and runs through this deeply introspective and magically enchanting drama is played throughout by Mark Berube, who has based his work on the original score by Bill Henderson. The lyrics and music of the three songs are as Bill Henderson composed them. The choreography for the two wildly exciting and exuberant dances is by Alysia Maschak and Niki Brown.

Song of This Place is a theatrical experience on many levels. It is a wonderful vehicle for skilled and insightful puppeteers who understand and practise the theory and practice of Felix Mirbt. It is part of Canadian Art history, and a reflection on the life and art of actors and painters in past and present Canadian society, but above all, it is a tribute to the indomitable spirit of all creative artists.

The talented students who take part in this production are a privileged few. They have had the opportunity to learn the difficult technique of Mirbt puppet manipulation and understanding, the intellectual exercise of exploring the life, work and milieu of a famous yet misunderstood and underrated local celebrity, and to work with two superb professional actors in a magnificent biographical drama directed by Robert More, who directed the original presentation, in which the author, Joy Coghill, played Frieda. What higher bliss could a theatre arts student crave!

For the audience, this is an intellectually satisfying and entertainingly enjoyable presentation. It is a jewel of such rarity that it should be appreciated and cherished by everyone, whether he/ she goes to the theatre for enlightenment, entertainment or sheer enjoyment.

The play runs at the Frederic Wood Theatre at UBC, February 18-28 2004., Monday through Saturday at 7.30 p.m. For more information, tickets and reservations call the box office at 604-822-2678.

2004, Jane Penistan