AFTER THE FIRE is a Complicated Look into the Human Psyche Following Trauma
The 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire displaced an entire city. In AFTER THE FIRE, writer Matthew MacKenzie examines the aftermath of the disaster through two couples. However, the complexity of the plot leads to a somewhat convoluted story due to the amount of exposition and information throughout.
AFTER THE FIRE, written by Matthew MacKenzie, directed by Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, and produced by Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts in association with Native Earth Performing Arts and The Theatre Centre, follows the story of a family recovering from the tragic Fort McMurray wildfire. Sisters Carmell (Louise Lambert) and Laura (Kaitlyn Riordan) fight the land and each other - as they navigate the burned-out wilderness to dispose of something, while in another part of the forest their husbands Ty (Jesse Gervais) and Barry (Sheldon Elter) have been tasked with digging a hole to help and struggle with their own demons during the process.
The story relies heavily on dialogue between the pairs, leaning towards self-reflective for the most part, but the writing makes some lines sound unnatural and fragmented. In these moments it seems more like actors reading lines, rather than characters speaking about their experiences. The incorporation of incredibly complex backgrounds for each character also detracts from the overall narrative, as it's hard to find a single storyline to focus on at any given point.
Despite this, each performer fully commits to their role. Lambert's Carmell is the steadfast, natural-born leader, contrasted against Riordan's panicky Laura. Some of the show's funniest lines are delivered by Lambert with great timing and sharp delivery, bringing some much-needed levity to an otherwise confusingly dark story. As the brothers-in-law, Elton and Gervais are equally well-suited to one another due to the differences in their characters. Elton's Barry is reserved, and self-describes as being "in his own head," which comes across nicely against how loud the other characters in the show are - primarily Ty, whose marriage and career seem to be falling out of control simultaneously. Gervais fully commits to Ty's abrasive and obnoxious personality, making every twist that comes along with his character interesting to watch.
The (approximately) three-foot high pile of ash-coloured mulch centre stage (set design by Alison Yanota) lends itself to Ty and Barry's constant digging, and at times is used by the sisters as they trek through the forest. It serves as a constant reminder of the fire that has quite literally ripped apart their lives, and the actors' struggle to walk over and through the earth really helps to show their struggle. Lighting is used to the advantage of the plot throughout, illuminating characters and their environment effectively - and the use of red strobe lights at a highly climactic moment alongside loud, aggressive dialogue and audio of singing and drumming (sound design by Dean Musani) created a powerful moment of chaos onstage.
Regardless of the difficult dialogue and confusing storyline, AFTER THE FIRE presents an interesting look at the trauma left behind after a disaster. Human interaction is at the base of the story, and each character's full backstory presented unique challenges that were met well by the actors. The play also serves as a reminder of just how catastrophic Fort McMurray was after the incident - no one was harmed, but an entire city was drastically changed.
AFTER THE FIRE runs through January 19 at The Theatre Centre's Franco Boni Theatre, 1115 Queen St. W., Toronto, ON.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://tickets.theatrecentre.org/TheatreManager/1/tmEvent/tmEvent242.html
Photo credits: Dahlia Katz