Lac/Athabasca (Victor Szymanski/The East)

In Review: Theatre Free Radical’s ‘Lac/Athabasca’

Timing is everything. Theatre Free Radical’s production of Lac/Athabasca, written and directed by Len Falkenstein, is strikingly prevalent in today’s climate, both politically and environmentally. Drawing inspiration from the 2013 disaster at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, the play is a fictionalized retelling of the events that led to the deaths of 47 people after an unattended train loaded with oil rolled down a hill, derailed, and exploded, destroying half the downtown core.

The tale is as twisted as the tracks that brought this story to our corner of the country. Its cast of five play anywhere from three to five characters each, which, without a costume change or two, might have been confusing had it not been for their very distinct portrayals.

Lac/Athabasca (Victor Szymanski/The East)
Lac/Athabasca (Victor Szymanski/The East)
Lac/Athabasca (Victor Szymanski/The East)
Lac/Athabasca (Victor Szymanski/The East)

Lac/Athabasca opens with a friendly greeting as our guide, Ben (Jake Martin), takes us on a tour of the Athabasca glaciers. Thus begins our journey through time and across Canada. It’s a story most maritimers will be familiar with–the hazy love affair between Atlantic Canada’s youth and Alberta’s oil sands.

Simultaneously complex and easy to follow, not unlike your third-grade relationship with the boy who collected frogs in his downtime, Lac/Athabasca presents stories from a variety of perspectives. Along the way, we meet a pair of nineteenth-century fur traders, two scientists with opposing views on oil’s effect on the environment, a home-sick oil-rig worker, and the rattled residents of the small town of Lac Madawaska. The common thread that ties all their stories together is brought to life with the treacherous journey that Alberta’s oil takes across the country to the Irving refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick.

Of the five performers, not one outshone another. The impressive emotional expression from each of the cast members was deeply moving and helped to create a truly immersive theatre experience. Emily Bossé masterfully portrayed two ends of the spectrum: a nineteenth-century Aboriginal girl and an exotic dancer. One of the more moving performances was delivered by Rebekah Chassé, whose many gut-wrenching moments had audience members at the edge of their seats. Jake Martin’s emotionally scarred volunteer firefighter was in stark contrast to Ben-the-tour-guide’s cheerful demeanour.  Alex Donovan made seamless jumps from impassioned biologist to creepy train engineer. As the final minutes of the play unfolded, the shaking voice of Jean-Michel Cliche resonated throughout the theatre, demonstrating an unexpected depth to his character.

Lac/Athabasca (Victor Szymanski/The East)
Lac/Athabasca (Victor Szymanski/The East)
Lac/Athabasca (Victor Szymanski/The East)
Lac/Athabasca (Victor Szymanski/The East)

Emphatic soundscapes and soft lighting transitions created easily accessible scenes. Tying the production together was the interesting use of a toy train set. The juxtaposition of the child size props with the grim reality that the oil cars represented was both jarring and impactful and brought an eerieness to the somber story. A hauntingly beautiful story, Lac/Athabasca will leave you with a heavy heart and, perhaps, a changed perspective on the effects of the oil industry. 

Lac/Athabasca is playing at the BMO Studio Theatre in Saint John on May 28th at 7:30pm. For more information check out Theatre Free Radical.

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