THE EXTINCTION THERAPIST, by Clem Martini,
Directed by Christine Brubaker,
A Theatre Aquarius production,
At the Dofasco Centre For the Arts,
January 27 to February 11, 2023
Tickets: 905-522-7529 or theatreaquarius.org
I believe that the creation, development, and staging of original dramatic works is the most essential thing that a theatre company can do.
So I was pleased to attend Theatre Aquarius' world premiere production by Alberta playwright, and University of Calgary drama professor, Clem Martini. According to the publicity material; "THE EXTINCTION THERAPIST is a comedy about creatures on the brink of extinction, grappling their way to their pending oblivion through group therapy,"
Clem Martini's script, is a very thoughtfully constructed piece of work. It borders on "theatre of the absurd"; Eugene Ionesco's 1959 play RHINOCEROS comes to mind. It's a careful balance between broad farce, in your face humour, and a thoughtful examination of community and mortality. There is clearly a metaphor about the climate change crisis in it as well.
We find ourselves in the home office of psychiatrist Dr Dennis Marshall, Richard Clarkin, (eerily reminiscent of the late great Canadian actor David Fox), who is setting up for an unusual group therapy session.
So far the only arrival is, Karen Ancheta's short eared shrew; a furry little beastie that seems out of scale with the surroundings. It's highly unlikely, that a small furry mammal would be quite so funny and articulate as is presented here, but there you go. That's the world clearly that the play are lives in.
Like many animals, on the edge of extinction due to climate change and human activity, the Shrew, bemoans her state the difficulty of finding a mate and of finding enough food to eat. It's an obvious fact that if you don't get enough to eat you die, and the struggle to survive is core to all living things.
Dr Marshall is in the middle of a separation with his wife, Joan, played by Rebecca Northan. She has an important dinner engagement set up for them both, but he has canceled due to work commitments and his inability to adjust his therapy schedule with his patients around her needs. This seems to be the final straw in their marriage.
Instead he has scheduled an appointment with a member of a Provincial Parliament; I wasn't sure how if it was an Ontario MPP or an Alberta MLA, but a generic populist conservative Canadian politician was clearly the target. And this character of Glen Merrick played by the ever mercurial Brandon McGibbon, created an awful lot of broad comedy.
The politician has come in a moment of a crisis, and as he cannot stop lying. He lies at work to his constituents; he lies to his wife; he lies to virtually everyone around him, including himself!
Dr Marshall proves himself to be quite apt at forcing him to confront these basic facts about himself. There's a wonderful scene near the end when we realize that the politician has been lying to Marshall as well! But to say more would spoil things. Obviously politicians are not well liked these days, I'm not sure if they are as despised as lawyers are, but it must be pretty close. So watching a politician get skewered live on stage is quite a wonderful thing!
The other three patients at the group therapy session, are a Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur, played by Hamilton Fringe festival director Christopher Staunton, a woolly mammoth, in a fabulous costume with long hairy trestles, also doubled by Rebecca Northan, and in a straight jacket, and played as a kind of British Psycho killer, the smallpox virus, as interpreted by Anand Rajaram.
As with all Theatre Aquarius shows, the production values are quite high. The stage is a large one to fill, but most of the action was done downstage, directly below the proscenium arch. This was quite a technically demanding production and Logan Raju Cracknell's lighting; the set design by Scott Penner; the brilliant sound design of Ranil Sonnadara, and most particularly the brilliant and inventive costumes imagined by Jennifer Goodman, which suggested the animal characters brilliantly, without falling into naturalism.
Much credit is due to the work of Christine Brubaker's inventive direction. In the first half of the show comedy this improbable set of circumstances leads to farce like hi-jinks. Still I felt that the audience clearly was deeply moved, while laughing their heads off, and regularly applauding. This was certainly an audience that was deeply involved in the production.
By the second act however, the tone shifts towards drama, as the penny drops that the one thing that all these characters have in common, is the fact that death is imminent for the mall. So it then becomes an examination of what it means to have lived, we need to cherish every moment, because life is finite.
"Do not go gently into that dark night", as Dylan Thomas reminded us. And we can face the fact of our mortality together, and with dignity. The issue of climate change, just like nuclear war before it, is something that may indeed lead to the extinction of the human race. Our insane need to destroy the environment, to dominate it, to pave it over, to build ever more sprawl, to wrest control of the Greenbelt protections, to control all those aspects of nature, but which ultimately if we are honest we cannot actually control, may indeed within the next hundred years lead to the death of our biosphere. And when the planet can no longer support human life, then we had better be off the planet or we too like the dinosaurs will go extinct.
I confess that I'm profoundly tired of death at the moment. There have been losses in my life that are bright profound, so I was emotionally deeply involved in the action of this stage play.
I have said over and over again, that the most important thing that any theatre company can do is to present the premier of a new play. It takes a particular risk to try something for the first time and to make the discoveries, the editing the tightening, and to know that you have created something that is truly original as a result of all of that work.
THE EXTINCTION THERAPIST is a production that is well worth seeing! I feel better informed, for having seen it. And I encourage you to do the same. This is a thoughtful production, that is quite amusing due to its broad comedy, but actually, in the end, has something very important to say; a lesson to teach that I think it is essential for us to learn. We think of ourselves as the top of the food chain, but ultimately time, and our own arrogance, may cost us dearly.
- Brian Morton
Photos by Felix@Frame-work.ca
Karen Ancheta – Nelson’s Short Eared Shrew
Richard Clarkin – Dr. Dennis Marshall
Brandon McGibbon – Glen Merrick, Minister of the Environment
Rebecca Northan – Woolly Mammoth/ Joan Moreau
Anand Rajaram – Smallpox Virus
Christopher Stanton – Tyrannosaurus Rex
Clem Martini - Playwright
Christine Brubaker – Director
Logan Raju Cracknell – Lighting Design
Jennifer Goodman – Costume Design
Josephine Ho – Stage Manager
Michael Kras – Magic Direction
Jasmyne Leisemer – Assistant Stage Manager
Logan McNutt – Apprentice Stage Manager
Scott Penner – Set Design
Ranil Sonnadara – Sound Design