Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts Magazine where he is also a critic and contributor.
After sold-out Fringe hits in 2018 (Everyone Wants A T-Shirt!) and 2017 (Madeleine Says Sorry). Prairie Fire, Please has returned to the Fringe this year with Madeleine Brown’s News Play in association with Theatre ARTaud and Lal Mirch Productions.
News Play is a tight, character-driven comedy about two estranged and failing children’s book writers – acerbic illustrator Phoebus (Greg Solomon) and ambitious writer Joy (Charlin McIsaac). As the play opens, the siblings’ book writing career has cratered. They are returning to their hometown of Peterborough – ostensibly to help their firebug cousin Winny (played by author Brown) who is a danger to herself and others – but also in hopes of curing Joy’s writer’s block. (In this play about stories, motivation is a funny thing – it’s never pure. Everyone has at least a couple of possible motivations for their actions.)
As the Peterborough jokes start to fly, Phoebus and Joy are blackmailed into repurposing their writing and illustration talents for manic, menacing local newspaper editor Art (Andrew Cromwell). He wants them to help him achieve a lofty circulation goal of . . . 100 for his moribund paper. The play’s central plot engine is the lengths to which the joyless Joy and the illuminating Phoebus will go – or not go – in order to goose circulation numbers.
But that description is waaaay too clinical and oversimplified. We’ve slipped into an adjacent, absurdist world whose real charm is how, despite recognizable touchstones, it evades the application of real-world logic. You may find yourself asking questions like . . . why are Phoebus’ illustrations are so critical to Art’s newspaper – has no one ever heard of photography? Or why is Art so focused on print circulation in a world of instant, online news?
Don’t. Embrace it, and be grateful that News Play is a funnier and more interesting play about “fake news” because it never acknowledges or even considers that the Internet exists.
News Play is a manic, madcap meditation on stories – their pervasiveness, their power, the sources of that power, and their potential for good or ill. One after another, amidst a mounting stream of comic absurdities, News Play poses great and important questions. And to do so, it uses children’s fiction and the news: two crowded mediums which just about everyone in 2019 feels they are qualified and capable to create in.
Director Aaron Jan has his cast play the story mostly straight, with an unflagging and infectious energy. They are individually winning, and they mesh brilliantly as an ensemble. Rouvan Sylogix’s loose-cannon Peterborough local Lyle stands in for the public – hung up on the dubious distinction between manipulating events so they become nearly inevitable . . . and actually staging them, which is “fake news”. And in a surprising, sympathetic turn, Brown’s confused pyromaniac Winny becomes the emotional core and the fulcrum on which the plot turns. Struggling with herself and her place, she is the canvas on which the others paint their self-serving stories. The play ultimately turns on her story’s acute need for resolution.
The minimalist set makes great use of the dynamic space at the Annex Theatre for continuous dramatic entrances and exits. Its most noticeable feature is a board of random-seeming newspaper pages at center stage that are periodically stripped off to reveal new words and form new headlines. This is an apt visual metaphor for the play’s central conceit – which is the way we excavate personally motivated stories from unmotivated chaos . . . and then tunnel further beneath these stories with new motivations that surface newer meaning.
In the screwball world of News Play, the story being created – whether it’s the news, a children’s story, or even the play itself – is elusive and suspect. News Play is a hall of mirrors where the actors play it straight, and what comes back is distorted reflections that generate loud laughs, pose important questions, and – in the play’s encouraging conclusion – reveal surprising heart.
News You Can Use
What: News Play written by Madeleine Brown; presented by Theatre ARTaud and Lal Mirch Productions in association with Prairie Fire, Please; Set & Lighting Design by Logan Raju Cracknell; Sound Design by Ross Somerville; Directed by Aaron Jan
Performed by Madeleine Brown, Andrew Cromwell, Charlin McIsaac, Rouvan Silogix, Greg Solomon
Who: Audiences 16 years of age and older
When: On stage until July 13, 2019
Where: The Annex Theatre, 736 Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: Fringetoronto.com
© Scott Sneddon, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019