Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
An online search about Arlen Aguayo Stewart recalls Joe Friday on Dragnet: Google turns up “just the facts”. Okay, this is an oversimplification – but not by much. The available facts are few. Extensive searching unearths only hints of further details. These are tucked within reviews of her star turn as Sarah, a young Canadian-Uruguayan woman who returns to her parents’ home country in search of her roots, in Roads in February (Les routes en février), the debut feature film by Katherine Jerkovic. Otherwise, nothing hints at her warmth and forthrightness, or the eclectic range of talents which span film, theatre, dance and circus. Happily, Toronto audiences are about to get much more than just the facts, when she brings those varied skills to bear in ARC’s production of Human Animals, a 2016 disquieting dark comedy by Scottish playwright Stef Smith.
ARC’s production of Human Animals marks its North American premiere, in keeping with the company’s mission to present contemporary international works rarely staged in Canada. Directed by ARC Artistic Producer Christopher Stanton, the cast includes resident artists Aviva Armour-Ostroff, Deborah Drakeford, Carlos González-Vío, Ryan Hollyman, and Andre Sills.
“I love this play,” Aguayo Stewart enthuses. Set in a dystopian future world, its subject is the climate crisis. “I’m playing Alex, a young person with a lot of passion and integrity”, she explains. Although Alex comes from a comfortable upbringing, she is “very aware and quick to question how our society’s moral and economic structures help to uphold her family’s wealth and the government interventions on the animals ‘taking over’.”
Aguayo Stewart is “jazzed to play Alex” because a big part of exploring and understanding Alex involves an introspective look at “where I stand in the world, and calling myself out on the things I choose to ignore, like the structures that benefit me”. Audiences will find themselves in a similar place of soul-searching and contemplating the messes we humans make, and how – or whether – we can clean them up. Humans Animals assumes a global malaise about the degradation of nature and heightens its immediacy by setting it in urban backyards. The staging, in the East End Arts Space at St. Matthew’s Clubhouse, on the edge of the lush Riverdale Park, further drives home the pervasiveness of this crisis of consciousness.
Instead of considering the extinction of species, Smith has flipped the script. The play examines the extreme implications of our environmental plight by imagining an overcrowded city where nature holds the upper hand. A neglect of environmental stewardship has unbalanced the hierarchy within the natural order: mice scratch between walls; foxes rule the streets; pigeons are dead; and contagion is rampant. Although no one seems to know how the crisis started, the city’s priority is to stop it at all costs. “This play… is unfortunately timeless, and so relevant right now,” Aguayo Stewart notes. She sees herself, her friends and colleagues reflected in the story, with the result that “this makes you question your own agency and involvement in society, what it means to stand by and let things happen, and what kind of artistry is needed to live in a way that doesn’t involve hurting others.”
The play is important . . . and so is the performer. Don’t be deceived by the scant biographical information – Aguayo Stewart is poised at the edge of stardom. Roads in February (Les routes en février) continues to accrue honours. It was named Best Canadian First Feature at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2018 and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle (VFCC), and made TIFF’s year-end Canada’s Top Ten list. It will play in theatres in Vancouver and Montreal and at the TIFF Lightbox this summer. Her performance earned her the Best Actress in a Canadian Film Award at the VFCC Awards, an accolade she greets with a gracious but swift “Thank you!” While she notes that “it was definitely exciting”, and she is “very grateful” for it, she pre-empts the confetti, noting how easy it can be to get “wrapped up” in the whole idea of “awards”. “There are so many talented people out there making incredible work in spaces where awards will never touch them. I think it’s important to keep that in mind when we think about ‘success’ and validating what other people do. If more work comes from it, awesome! I welcome it! Regardless, I hope that I can continue to be part of projects that inspire me and others.”
Human Animals fits that bill. “COME SEE THE SHOW!!!!!!!” she urges. When asked what else she would like people to know about her, she pulls back the curtain just a smidge: “I speak multiple languages. I love language and how it allows you to connect with people and culture.” She was originally in school “hoping to go into medicine”, and so loves learning about “all kinds of things”. Though there is certainly more to know, she refrains from extraneous comment about herself, reserving her other responses to Human Animals.
Which makes Human Animals a welcome – and even more intriguing – opportunity to augment a “just the facts” understanding of Aguayo Stewart with firsthand appreciation of her performing talents.
I’m honestly excited to share the experience with everyone involved; it’s such a lovely collective of artists.
Lea Seydoux. I watched her films when I wasn’t in this business, and I thought she was just glorious. When I got on set I was so annoyed with myself for the “starstruck-edness.”
In the Realms of Hungry Ghosts [by Gabor Maté MD]
I prefer to get to know people in person 🙂
News You Can Use
What: Human Animals (North American Premiere), written by Stef Smith; Stage Management by Tamara Vuckovic; Set and Lighting Design by Nick Blais; Costume Design by Jackie Chau; Directed by Christopher Stanton
Performed by Aviva Armour-Ostroff, Deborah Drakeford, Carlos González-Vío, Ryan Hollyman, Andre Sills, Arlen Aguayo Stewart
When: February 22 – March 16, 2019
Where: East End Arts Space at St. Matthew’s Clubhouse, 450 Broadview Avenue, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: arcstage.com
© 2019 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya/SesayArts Magazine