Harsh Yukon winters clash with the lives of three young people in Canadian Stage’s Yukonstyle playing at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre
Yukonstyle is the second play by emerging Quebec playwright Sarah Berthiaume to be produced at Canadian Stage this season. It’s a show that seeks to override our impulse to define what being “Canadian” means, through the lens of three young people surviving as best they can through an unforgiving Yukon winter.
The play follows two roommates, Yuko and Garin, and a young pregnant woman named Kate that Yuko picks up in the dead of night and offers the roommates’ couch as a safe, warm haven. While the three struggle to co-exist in the harsh northern-Canadian cold, Berthiaume frames the action with the constant media stream of the 2007 Robert Pickton trial. It’s Garin who’s affected most by the sensationalism of the story, going through his own turmoil with Pops, his alcoholic father, who keeps details about Garin’s mother under wraps until he drinks himself into a hospital bed.
Ted Witzel, who directed Shakespeare in High Park’s run of Taming of the Shrew, has a way of pulling strong energy from his actors, especially with scenes that require a lot of back and forth dialogue. The play flips between ordinary scenes and a brand of stream-of-consciousness-type narrative monologues that slow the pace. I thought Witzel handled the switches well, though the first couple might have caught me off guard. Witzel’s creative team also does an excellent job of conveying the expected starkness of a Yukon winter, pairing projections by Cameron Davis with Gillian Gallow’s minimal set.
Witzel’s cast is also commendable, with an engaging frantic energy that is fascinating to watch. Kate Corbett’s Kate is an absolutely cringe-worthy incarnation of the worst of teenage, white-bread ignorance, and while her character made me grate my teeth, it was certainly welcome. Grace Lynn Kung as Yuko strikes a fine balance between the spunky woman who left her home in Japan to forgive and forget in the Yukon, and the ethereal presence of Garin’s mother’s spirit. It took some time for me to warm up to Ryan Cunningham’s Garin, but the steadily brewing undercurrent of rage that he harbours, that surfaces in sparks, eventually pulled me in.
I think the biggest struggle with this show is on the level of the text. Berthiaume tries to ask questions about Canadian identity, about the media’s reaction to the First Nations women who were victims of Robert Pickton, about stereotyping ourselves and others. She tries to do this in the context of telling a compelling story about three young people struggling to survive life as we know it, about family ties, and about love. I think what’s missing is the real connection between the two, and somewhere in Berthiaume’s text the connective tissue that weaves these ideas together gets lost.
My play companion for the evening left the theatre unsettled by the performance, while I was enthralled by the way its story was weaved together. It seems clear that she was focused on the questions Berthiaume tried to address, while I chose to be more engaged by the characters’ stories since the other pieces didn’t quite mesh. Another friend of mine who works at Canadian Stage mentioned that she’d heard the subject matter was described as shocking.
I think this show is worth seeing, because I think it’s well put together, but I don’t think that it’s for everyone.
- Yukonstyle is playing until October 27, 2013 at the Canadian Stage‘s Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street)
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday at 1:30pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm
- Ticket prices range from $22-$49
- Tickets are available online
Grace Lynn Kung and Kate Corbett in Yukonstyle. Photo by Bruce Zinger.