Plays can be about nearly anything and, like pizza toppings, sometimes the most unexpected combinations turn out to be the most satisfactory. ROW, playing this year at SummerWorks, is about residential schools, kept boys, dominance and submission, pride, and history – and it is a stunner.
Three men play Sonny, a Cree kept boy, at different stages of life. Each narrates his experiences in the present – the youngest (Dillan Chiblow) in a residential school and then when he’s expelled due to a “situation,” the middle one (Garret C. Smith) looking for a new sugar daddy, and the eldest (Billy Merasty) reflecting on what he learned finding and attracting keepers.
Throughout, the show is given an affecting live score by brilliant cellist Cris Derksen, mixing a live soundscape on stage. The actors and Derksen weave their contributions together with uncommon grace, ceding and taking the focus seamlessly as the stories progress and combine. It’s a triumph of directing, and one in which Cole Alvis of lemonTree creations should take great pride.
As the story progresses there’s significant queer content, and each man tells and embodies his part of the story of finding and losing his place in the world. The narrative arc travels through dark places, both figuratively and literally – from the sexual abuse of children to the backroom of a leather bar and beyond.
As someone with significant familiarity with leather and BDSM narratives, I was surprised at how authentic the work felt. It’s so often played for laughs and cheap titillation. Not here – instead, the actors all spoke about queer and sadomasochistic desire with real and non-euphemistic passion while also letting them be profoundly allegorical for a narrative of white people’s subjugation of the First Nations people and culture through residential schools. It was something special to see.
To be clear, parts of the show are difficult. The story progresses non-linearly to an eruption that we start to see coming a rather long way away, but the details of what will finally prove Sonny’s undoing are held cleverly in reserve until the very end. Playwright T. Berto uses the audience’s attention to dramatize details that build toward the finale, as much like a symphony as a play – we know we’re going somewhere big but not quite how until the wave is breaking over us, leaving us saturated and unsettled. You’ll have to see it (and hear it) to believe it.
And you should see it. While not classically “enjoyable” – you won’t leave humming – ROW is a tremendously affecting piece of work by an ensemble that will keep you thinking and reflecting for hours after. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Saturday August 9, 12:00pm
Sunday August 10, 5:00pm
Monday August 11, 7:00pm
Tuesday August 12, 9:30pm
Friday August 15, 9:30pm
Sunday August 17, 7:30pm
All individual SummerWorks tickets are $15 at the door (cash only). Tickets are available online at http://summerworks.ca, By phone by calling the Ticketwise Call Centre at 416-907-0468, in person at the SummerWorks Info Booth – located at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West) August 5th-17th from 10AM – 7PM (Advance tickets are $15 + service fee)
Several money-saving passes are available if you plan to see at least 3 shows
Photo of Dillan Chiblow by Max Telzerow