Playwright Claudia Dey’s Trout Stanley (2005) is not for all markets. Variously described as black comedy, or Canadian gothic, and even Yukon gothic, the play is a wild leap into kooky farce, or farcical zaniness, or zany kookiness – I’m sure you get the drift. While Dey’s macabre whimsical and fantastical approach might be off-putting, a play does not become regarded as a Canadian classic (in some circles) without having something going for it besides a trip to the surreal. In truth, Trout Stanley features three rather engaging, if quirky, characters, some funny lines (“I’m red-hot and blue balls at the same time”), and Dey’s wild leaps of imagination in terms of storytelling.
Take for example Dey’s bizarre premise. Two sisters who are fraternal twins, Sugar and Grace Ducharme (Shakura Dickson and Natasha Mumba), live an isolated life in northern British Columbia, somewhere, we are told, between Misery Junction and Grizzly Alley. They are just turning thirty, and if the pattern holds true, someone always dies on their birthday just as their own parents did. As bad luck would have it, a local stripper/scrabble champion has gone missing and is probably dead. The extraverted and dominating Grace runs the local garbage dump, while the more retiring and shy Sugar has not left the house in the ten years since her parents’ death. While Grace is out and about, even snagging a billboard modelling job, Sugar carves sad-looking little figurines. Into this house of gloom comes the drifter Trout Stanley (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) whose parents died before they could tell him why they named him after a fish. He is the proverbial fox in the hen house, and thus begins the eternal and predictable love triangle.
The play really is reductio ad absurdum as each new revelation from the characters takes us one step further into incredulity. Dey has fashioned outlandish facts about how the Ducharme parents died, how the Stanley parents died, and how Trout found himself on the road and what his quest is. You couldn’t think that things could get crazier, but they do. There are, however, important themes and ideas lurking beneath the comic surface, such as the co-dependency of the sisters, although they are also passionately devoted to each other. Grace needs to keep Sugar a recluse, and Sugar needs Grace running her life. There are also the dreams and hopes that they encourage in each other, no matter how far-fetched. For example, Sugar keeps referring to the handsome doctor she will one day meet and marry, and Grace conjures up all manner of implausible situations as to how that encounter will happen. When Trout remarks that, after he had been abandoned by his parents, he came to regard the television set as a substitute for his mother, it’s a funny line, but the implications are heart-rending.
This production of Trout Stanley has a surprise in store for those who know the play. All the actors are Black, as is director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu. The result of this change from the all-white original means that already marginalized characters are rendered even more marginalized. Does Grace have to be so aggressive because attack is the best defence? Does her billboard appearance take on a special aura because she was chosen? Do Sugar and Trout fall instantly in love because they are kindred spirits, not just in personality, but in racial sameness? A Black cast certainly offers different perspectives on the script.
Director Otu keeps things whizzing along at a rapid pace, never letting the action flag while ensuring that Dey’s humour is front and centre. Her excellent handling of physical comedy is also on display. The characterizations are well-defined, and like all good farce, Otu’s actors play everything for real. Her approach to Dey’s creatures is to make them lovable. Grace, Sugar and Trout may be misfits and/or nerds, but they do posses charm. The acting is uniformly good, in fact, I would even say the actors give sparkling performances. You just want to give Sugar a big hug, and tell Grace to relax and find her cool. As for Trout Stanley, he just needs mothering.
Shannon Lea Doyle’s set is eye-catching. In the bizarre and improbable world of the Ducharme sisters, there is one fixed reality and that is their home. Doyle has created a true-to-life kitchen, living room and front hall that also includes large glass windows from which you can see the northern forest. Raha Javanfar’s lighting shines through those windows in all its glory. I don’t know how Javanfar did it, but the play’s opening is absolutely astonishing. Only Sugar’s figurines are lit and you realize with a shock just how many there are.
Trout Stanley is an entertaining fairy tale, but it is also a play about survival and coping with tragedy, while searching out the ephemeral bonds that hold us together.
Factory Theatre, Trout Stanley by Claudia Dey, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, Factory Theatre Mainspace, Oct. 19 to Nov. 10, 2019.