Playwright Mark Crawford is a comedy genius. The Blyth Festival is featuring the world premiere of his The New Canadian Curling Club, and it is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Crawford’s wickedly funny and very clever one-liners just keep rolling off the stage. But here’s the kicker – the subject of the play is anything but funny, because the main theme is racism and prejudice, with searching questions about what makes someone a Canadian thrown in for good measure.
Crawford’s premise is brilliant. His setting is an unnamed, small, southern Ontario town in a rural backwater. (How small is it? It has only one Tim Horton’s.) Every such town has a woman of good deeds – in this case, Marlene, whom we never meet. It is Marlene’s brainchild to get the local curling club to host lessons for New Canadians on the assumption that learning this quintessential Canadian winter sport will help with integration. Unfortunately, Marlene slips on the ice and breaks her hip. The ringer she brings in is her bigoted, red neck ex-husband Stuart MacPhail (Lorne Kennedy), the club’s icemaker and Zamboni driver, and a former championship curler. Stuart is 7th generation Scottish descent, who even snubs his nose at the Dutch who closely followed his ancestors into the area. It never occurs to him that his family were once immigrants.
Two of the quartet of New Canadians who show up for the lessons are there out of loyalty to Marlene. Jamaican-born Marcia Johnson (Charmaine Bailey) is a good friend of Marlene’s and they belong to the same church. She ended up in the town because she met her Dutch-descent husband when he was on vacation in Jamaica. Even after 27 years, she has never been fully accepted into the fabric of the town. The designation “New” Canadian is laughable in her case. Marcia is the manager of the one and only Tim Horton’s. High school student Fatima Al-Sayeed (Parmida Vand) is a member of a Syrian refugee family whom Marlene’s church sponsored into Canada.
On the male side, South Asian Anoopjeet Singh (Omar Alex Khan) has been in Canada for seven years. He had grown up in a small town in India and wanted to find small town life again. He also wanted to get his wife and sons (one of whom is called Peter Mansbridge Singh) away from the suffocating control of their large extended families in Brampton. Anoopjeet works at Tim Horton’s, and he joins the lessons to cozy up to Marcia because an assistant manager’s job is coming up, and he desperately needs the promotion for financial reasons. Matthew Gin (Mike Chang) is a doctor from China who is a resident at the local hospital. He wants to build a warmer relationship with Stuart because his doctor fiancée is Stuart’s granddaughter, and needless to say, Stuart has never accepted the situation. (Matthew turns out to be the most promising curler because he is learning more from YouTube videos than from Stuart.)
It is on the curling club ice that collisions, both physical and metaphorical occur. From the very beginning of the play, Stuart hurls racial insults at the immigrants, and for a few uneasy moments after the lights go down, the discomfort of the audience is palpable. People even gasp. In this age of political correctness, what Stuart utters is absolutely outrageous and unacceptable. Some of his more printable slurs are referring to the group as the “international house of pancakes”, or “the gang from It’s a Small World”, or pointing out that he has a yellow, black and brown, so all he needs is a red. Mercifully, the audience can soon relax and enjoy the war of words because the unbowed if bloodied New Canadians stand up to Stuart and start getting their verbal licks in almost immediately. In fact, later in the play, they fire Stuart and elect Matthew as their instructor. It is interesting to note that prejudice, either overt or implied, also exists among the immigrants themselves. For example, Anoopjeet continually insults Matthew by seeing no difference between the Chinese and Koreans. For her part, Fatima won’t let Marcia drive her to her front door because she can’t let her father see that she is in a car with a black woman. The play is a clash of cultures on many levels.
How wonderful it is to have the great Lorne Kennedy back on stage. During his long and distinguished career at both the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, this gifted actor gave many memorable performances, and his portrayal of Stuart MacPhail must surely join that pantheon of honours. He skilfully portrays an appalling, narrow-minded, bitter, lonely man who literally has no redeeming virtues. Stuart snarls and barks at his so-called students, while he lords his white Canadianism over the newcomers. It’s laughable how this little man, in both stature and mind, sees himself as the one who belongs to the entitled class, and it is a testament to Kennedy’s consummate talent that his characterization never rings a false note.
The other roles are also well-defined and superbly acted. Chang’s intelligent Matthew shows just the right amount of anger and exasperation at the truculent and immovable Stuart. Khan’s role as Anoopjeet is blessed with the funniest lines in the play, and he is absolutely endearing in an earnest, bumbling way. It falls to Johnson to be the purveyor of sarcasm, and her Charmaine is one feisty lady. But then, she has been fighting for acceptance for 27 years. Vand does an excellent job as the timid and reserved Fatima who has to cope with language problems, yet she too holds her own against Stuart. Some of the funniest dialogue rises out of the miscommunication between Fatima and Stuart.
You can always count on old pro director Miles Potter to create great ensembles, and this is one of the delights of The New Canadian Curling Club. In this production Potter demonstrates, once again, his knack for putting real characters, dealing with real situations, on stage. We know these people – all of them, but then, Crawford has given Potter a lot to work with. Set designer Steve Lucas has pulled off a miracle. He has literally built a curling rink on the Blyth stage with a floor that looks likes actual slippery ice. This allows for physical comedy such as the newbie who slides down the ice leaving the rock behind, and, conversely, the person who can’t let go of the rock and is taken for a ride. Lucas has also created a mezzanine bar that overlooks the rink. It’s a terrific set all round.
Crawford has thrown in a few subplots to spice the mix, but The New Canadian Curling Club is essentially a play about character and ideas, and profound thoughts do lurk amid the hilarity. We cannot escape the question of identity, national and personal, or our role in the acceptance of newcomers that Crawford presents before us. In fact, the playwright’s intention is all the more prescient in this scary new age of growing populism. Yes, admittedly, we do laugh at political incorrectness in the play, but the shared laughter of the audience is over the absurdities of Stuart’s pronouncements. He is the one whose very words and attitudes make him look more the fool. Our laughter is not condoning Stuart’s racial slurs or the stereotypical hogwash he spouts, but, rather, we are recognizing just how very wrong-headed he is.
Because this is Blyth, there has to be the obligatory happy ending, and Crawford does verge dangerously close to the saccharine, but he does leave some dark clouds at the end. Even though the curse of racial prejudice is not solved in this play, yet, rapprochements are made.
Blyth Festival 2018, The New Canadian Curling Club by Michael Crawford, directed by Miles Potter, Blyth Memorial Hall, Blyth ON, Jun. 20 to Aug. 23, additional performances Sept. 18 to 21.