Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Wars

Back in the day my favourite Calgary bashing joke was:
Q: What's the difference between Calgary and yogurt?
A: Yogurt has culture.
Calgarians still seem obsessed with making money and buying giant vacation homes, but I'll admit, begrudgingly, that there are many cultural bright spots in that striving city to the south. The Calgary Folk Fest has given big sister Edmonton Folk Fest a run for most-interesting lineup the last few years. Calgary Opera has commissioned and produced two new Canadian operas (Filumena in 2003, Frobisher in 2007). The new Sled Island Festival showed the vibrancy of Calgary's music scene, as did Chad VanGaalen's nomination for the Polaris Prize. Calgary's literary festival, WordFest, has become one of Canada's largest while Edmonton's LitFest still struggles. And while Edmonton is still a theatre town par excellence, the Calgary theatre scene is quite healthy and interesting.

Down in Calgary for turkey last weekend, I attended Theatre Calgary's world premiere production of The Wars. This is a theatrical adaptation of Timothy Findley's classic Great War novel, The Wars, written and directed by Dennis Garnhum. Apparently this production is Theatre Calgary's first premiere since 1988, and it is a big production, with many actors and a complex set. Their gamble paid off, with sell-outs for the entire run. The play is spectacular, including a show-stopping scene when soldiers undergo a gas attack: the clouds of gas creep and pour from the back of the stage down into stage front, spilling off the stage and dissipating when the gas hits the heat from the audience.

As a play? Hmm. Adapting a beloved novel is always dicey. The book is always better than the film is the cliché. But The Wars was adapted by Findley himself into a feature film in 1983, so Garnhum had one path to emulate (or avoid). I think the play did work, but perhaps not as well for those in the audience who love the book. The novel is complex, the play is straightforward. In the novel Robert Ross is much more morally ambiguous. He's grey as the mud of Flanders. But in the play Ross is a hero, full stop, and the choices he makes are clearly heroic. And some of the most "dramatic" (and controversial) episodes in the novel are left out of the play.

A great book can lead to many interpretations. Props to Theatre Calgary and Dennis Garnhum for taking an ambitious project on. It is entirely worthwhile and may point folks back to Findley's books. But Edmonton isn't going to let Calgary hog the world premieres of Canadian plays about the First World War this season. The Citadel Theatre premieres Vern Thiessen's new play, Vimy, on October 20th! The CBC has a piece about this odd coincidence [here].

For an update on the Edmonton/Calgary rivalry, check out the ongoing "Tale of Two Cities" series in sister newspapers, the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal. Columnists from each paper trade cities to examine an issue. This week Edmonton theatre critic Liz Nichols had nice things to say about Calgary's theatre scene [here].


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