Hit ‘stoner’ comedy takes off!
FARCE ON A GRAND SCALE
In January, 2004, the decent folk of Barrie, Ontario, had their innocence shattered. On a far-fetched tip, the police swarmed a huge building, once the site of the Molson’s brewery, and discovered that the vast space had been secretly converted into Canada’s “biggest indoor marijuana farm” or “grow op”. The police and the entire country were stunned by what was uncovered.
Apparently, and unbeknownst to all, teams of workers had toiled 24 hours a day, endlessly, “caring for more than 30,000 high-grade marijuana plants that produced an annual cash crop worth an estimated $100-million.” All this had gone on a few feet from the major highway, making it easy to ship the product. Barrie was scandalized. And the whole mess made national news.
Now, Alex Dault, artistic director of Theatre by the Bay, and a skilled creator of historical plays, has penned Northern Lights, a wild comedy, inspired by this amazing “mother of all police raids”.
While the idea for Northern Lights springs from the original drug bust, the work quickly vaults into classic farce, full of mistaken identities, misunderstood motives, unravelling strategies, and adventurous escapes.
Farce, by its nature, is revelatory and perverse. It shows human society as having a thin surface of reason, decorum, and balance. In fact, that brittle surface can snap at any given moment, madness drowning all. Human institutions and personal aspirations are mocked. With farce, not much is sacred.
In addition to a seditious plot, Dault imaginatively creates a wide array of screwy characters, everyone from respected townsfolk to the more sketchy types who labour away in the dank and purgatorial dope factory. Further, as the play unfolds, the successful drug business seems linked to other activities, implicating the exalted world of high art. All scandals are discreetly connected, and when one breaks, they all roll into full view, like pearls scattering across the floor.
While specific to Barrie, Northern Lights is gleefully universal, and a tremendous amount of fun. You don’t have to love weed to love this play. The comedy also celebrates one of Canada’s most honored traditions, that of marketing illegal contraband. Lest we forget, many of the country’s most respected families got rich during the American Prohibition, smuggling whiskey into the U.S.A.
Northern Lights begins when one of the young workers in the indoor farm gets caught crossing the American border. A great deal of marijuana is found concealed in his car’s tires. The frightened worker makes a call to his Mom back in Barrie, and asks her for an astronomical sum of money to get him out of mischief. Instead, she feels her son’s employer should bear the responsibility for his “work-related” problem. Angered, she marches right down to the “office” and confronts “management”. There, Mom is mistaken as the always unseen and murderous drug lord who remotely runs the grow op. From this point on, things get sorely out of hand and the lunacy escalates.
Both set and lighting, designed by Joe Pagnan, are latent with subtle and shocking ambiance. We see only a row of low stools, each stool in the shape of an alphabetical letter, spelling out the name “MOLSONS”. The painted stage floor starts to undulate, if you stare at it long enough. With liftoff, Northern Lights is rather like Alice in Wonderland laced with all kinds of acrobatics, dance scenes, and visual tricks so unexpected, your eye brows nearly shoot off your face in amazement. While the play opens in the “grow-op” and it isn’t long before the whole audience is sucked down the rabbit hole, and dropped in Mad Hatter Land.
Alex Dault, who both wrote and directs this work, has assembled a wicked cast that works well together. One remembers each actor, but I must mention Tim Fitzgerald Walker, playing an incompetent American drug agent. Walker, a well-known Toronto actor, is surely a comic treasure. It’s worth the price of admission just to see his on-stage antics, not to mention the costumes he wears. As well, John Fray is an incredible chameleon playing the part of the intensely manic plant manager, Long Legs, not to mention another character, Fish Farm Johnson, who seems to have pioneered some type of fetishistic obsession. Barbara Clifford, Janet-Lynne Durnford, Joanna Keats, Tom Ketchum, Frank Kewin, Vivian Or, and Chloe Payne all bring high voltage energy to their parts. In particular, Chloe Payne is incredible at mime movements, so well suited to this kind of comic venture.
To me, Northern Lights is a breakthrough for Alex Dault, as an artistic director, playwright, and director. With meagre resources, and the hard work of the producer/general manager, Iain Moggach, Theatre by the Bay has created this wonderfully fetching and commercial comedy. I can only hope this cheeky farce makes it to Toronto, and every other city where audiences love to laugh.
Crew of Northern Lights:
Director/Playwright: Alex Dault
Iain Moggach: Producer
Production Manager: Beth Elliot
Assistant Production Manager / Assistant Set Designer: Rosalind Naccarato
Stage Manager: Becky Wong
Assistant Stage Manager: Jenn Burns
Set Designer: Joe Pagnan
Costume Designer: Claire McMillan
Composer / Music Designer: Joshua Doerksen
Production Assistant: Emily Bradford
Voice Coach: Leah Holder
Fight Choreographer: Erin Eldershaw
Choreographer: Brandon Crone
Dramaturg: Emma McKenzie Hillier
Props Master: Vera Oleynikova
Assistant Director: Richard Varty
Photos by: Jordan Probst