ARC’s OIL gushes with knockout performances and viscous ideas

Bahareh Yaraghi and Samantha Brown in ARC’s OIL; photo: Nicholas Porteous

Ella Hickson’s OIL, currently on stage at Geary Lane in Toronto’s west end, is both epic and personal. Produced by ARC, the same group that mounted last year’s Dora-nominated production of Human Animals, the show spans 162 years and locations in England and the Middle East, yet manages to feel intimate and character-driven. Skilled direction by Aviva Armour-Ostroff and Christopher Stanton, and knockout acting performances turn this already gripping story into something even weightier and more wondrous.

From the show’s oil-drenched poster to the promotional promise of leaping “from the dawn of the industrial age to a futuristic post-petroleum world and beyond”, OIL feels destined to be a treatise on the petrochemical industry. It is – in part – though not the way I had expected. The show’s harrowing first act plunges us into the strained, dangerous dynamics of a Cornwall farm family in 1889. They are huddling against both the bitter winter and one another. This urgent narrative of survival pivots into a debate on the right to be warm when the sun is not shining – and to stand independently on your own two feet, rather than freeze in the dark of the ancestral home. This sets the tone for the way the play will engage with the titular substance. Act 1 is not about “oil” per se: it’s about a family. Secondarily, it comes to be about a new source of energy, which may just change what’s possible for the family.

The first act also sets the table for the core characters. The most important of these are May (Bahareh Yaraghi), who is pregnant at this point, and daughter Amy (Samantha Brown), who will make her first appearance as a child in Act II. In each new Act, we will encounter these characters in high-stakes moments in new places and times. After the opening act, we move to Tehran in 1908, then back to Hampstead (north of London) in 1970, on to Kirkuk, Kurdistan in 2025, then finally back to Cornwall in 2051. With each new time period, we are sucked into a compelling scene of emotional urgency rooted in interpersonal family dynamics. With each new time period, the protagonists advance in their lifestages. It’s like the watching the old Carousel of Progress at Disney World, where the stage keeps turning and revealing dioramas of new time periods and their associated technologies, with common core family characters. In some strange way, these are the same characters growing older. And yet…they can’t be, because the time period is just too vast.

So there’s something deeper going on here. The play is not a treatise on the ills of the petrochemical industry. Nor is it a generational family saga. It’s the tale of a set of stunningly well-realized characters whose enduring existential and familial challenges literally transcend time. We come to care deeply about them.  We – and they – also become aware that their challenges, circumstances and choices are variously shaped and influenced by oil, though often not in the most obvious way. For instance, a member of the family works for a petroleum company in just one of these time periods. But while the core of the story is character and family dynamics, contact with energy technology sets off sparks that illuminate critical and problematic issues: imperialism, the exploitation and control of wealth, the repression of nations and people, feminism and female agency, and much more.

Lily Gao in ARC’s OIL; photo: Nicholas Porteous

What never changes is the need for family and the drive for love and fulfilment. These core motivations – like the oil itself, which we are reminded is millions of years old – run deep and primal. And though we see emissaries of nations appropriating oil and selling it to others, we recognize these as local, impermanent moments floating atop the eternal. Like Alan Moore’s epic novel Jerusalem or Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, there’s a magical sense of the simultaneity of times and reverberations back and forth across them. In the fifth and final time period of 2051, we are back in Cornwall, but we are now beyond oil. And as this final act doubles back on the opening act 162 years prior, a timeless question looms: is oil a metaphor for opportunity that the universe affords us in every time period? Opportunity for advancement that we can enable – or for repression that we can countenance?

This riveting story is driven by standout performances. You can’t take your eyes off Bahareh Yaraghi, who is by turns intense, passionate, imperious and manically hilarious, in 5 different roles that span the “lifetime” of protagonist May. Samantha Brown’s daughter Amy – first a young child, then a rebellious teenager, then a passionate spitfire – is deeply compelling. Nabil Traboulsi is a magnetic, mysterious presence exuding a preternatural confidence and calm in roles that make him the emissary of larger commercial or national interests. And the rest of the cast make the most of less central and, in some cases, more time period-specific roles. Shadi Shahkhalili takes on multiple roles adjacent to the family, really shining as the sullen but never defeated Aminah. Deborah Drakeford’s Ma Singer is the incarnation of stoic, atavistic motherhood, and Cyrus Lane’s Joss is a compelling and elemental son and husband. Finally, Courtenay Stevens displays wonderful range – moving effortlessly from stone cold menace to slacker comedy – and Lily Gao makes the most of a surprising new role in the final act.

And finally, a word about the venue itself. Before OIL, I’d never been to Geary Lane. The venue looks like an industrial garage nestled betwixt commerce and housing in the unassuming Dufferin/Davenport neighbourhood. The building feels like it was built from oil-engineered possibilities perched atop ancestral native lands. And inside lies an utterly surprising space: airy, intimate, with fantastic sightlines – and, get this, clean, modern bathrooms! The set is functional, expressionist and sparse, adorned by accoutrements of the petroleum industry – barrels, a tower, and the menacing spillage of oil down the walls from the ceiling, though these elements are never called upon in any literal way. Likewise, none of the other stage props is realistic. At the start, it is a bit jarring to see a rifle that is in reality just a stick, and food which is really just balled-up coloured napkins. But the intensity and atemporality of the narrative burn away all concern for realism. For remember: we’re in the presence of the eternal here.

If you like your drama to gush forth in a torrent, and if you like the issues it raises to be viscous and hard to let go of, ARC’s OIL is a must-see. This is the top production I’ve seen so far in 2020. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Nabil Traboulsi and Bahareh Yaraghi in ARC’s OIL; photo: Nicholas Porteous

News You Can Use

What: OIL (Canadian Premiere), Written by Ella HicksonDirected by Aviva Armour-Ostroff & Christopher StantonAssistant Director & Stage Manager: Tamara VuckovicSet & Costume Design by Jackie ChauLighting Design by Nick BlaisMusic & Sound Design by Maddie BautistaVideo Design by Melissa JoakimProduction Manager: Crystal LeeAssociate Producer: Victor Pokinko

Cast: Samantha Brown Deborah DrakefordLily GaoRyan HollymanCyrus LaneShadi ShahkhaliliCourtenay StevensNabil TraboulsiBahareh Yaraghi

When: On stage until March 21, 2010; running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes (one intermission)

Where: Geary Lane, 360 Geary Avenue, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: arcstage.com

*ARC is donating $1 from each ticket sold to the Unist’ot’en legal fund to help offset the legal fees associated with protecting Wet’suwet’en territory.

© Scott Sneddon, Sesaya/SesayArts Magazine, 2020

Scott Sneddon

Scott Sneddon

Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts Magazine where he is also a critic and contributor.