Eric Peterson in Seeds. Photo Credit Guntar Kravis
January 15 – 18, 2014
Theatre Junction Grand
All Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser wanted was to grow the pesticide-resistant canola plants that he said appeared on his property one day as a result of contamination from a neighbor’s farm. All Monsanto Canada Inc. (the biotech company who created the gene that made the canola plant so chemically immune) wanted was to protect its patent and stop what they saw as the theft of their seeds by Schmeiser. All playwright Annabel Soutar wanted was to do was to take this true story of the four-year court battle that ensued and create a piece of verbatim docu-theatre based on court transcripts and interviews with all the playersinvolved. Sounds simple enough. But just like the biased self-serving perceptions held by Schmeiser and Monsanto in this landmark court battle, Soutar’s play Seeds also gives us a skewed and at times insultingly subjective story that unfortunately takes much of the docu out of the drama in this otherwise splendid production by Montreal’s Porte Parole.
Directed with thrilling fluency and invention by 2013 Siminovitch Prize winner Chris Abraham, the play mimics Soutar’s research into the 1998 case of Monsanto Canada Inc. versus Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser that eventually made it all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada. We watch as Soutar (played by Liisa Repo-Martell) interviews everyone from scientists to activists to farmers to lawyers to the Monsanto PR representative (played with verve by an ensemble cast) in an effort to uncover the truth. Most of her time however is spent speaking with Schmeiser himself (a somewhat one-dimensional Eric Peterson) to get his side of this David and Goliath story.
Despite the play containing an abundance of scientific facts and theories and an ample amount of legal procedure pertaining to patent laws, Abraham directs the action on stage with such a brilliantly orchestrated pace that we are visually mesmerized if not altogether narratively engaged. Much of the credit for this must also go to Julie Fox’s energetically busy set design that litters the stage with science labs, lawyer’s offices, coffee houses, courtrooms and the Schmeiser farm with what amounts to garage-sale props. Ana Cappelluto’s moody and arresting lighting design brings the cool factor to the stage and Elysha Poirier’s inventive video and projection design, which often puts the action up on stage in projected real-time video, adds much-needed depth to the production.
But looking beyond the distraction of the uber-slick production and able cast, the play offers up little more than underdeveloped characters and preachy story-telling. Soutar assures us that each character has the opportunity to speak their point of view but there is no care to make sure the tone of those views is balanced. The words may be verbatim, but without fail Soutar (and Abraham) presents Monsanto supporters as cold, grating, unlikable characters while Percy, his wife and others that side with him come across as sympathetic and reasonable voices. My reaction to this treatment was a stiffening in my seat, don’t tell me what to think response. The blatant demonizing of one side of the narrative while at the same time claiming to be a balanced docu-drama was manipulative at best and simply bad story-telling at worst. This is not to say that the slant taken wasn’t my own personal bias, but I would have preferred to get there on our own through compelling and fair narrative treatment rather than to have one viewpoint thrust so obviously upon us.
Bias aside, Soutar’s script fell short in other areas as well. Midway through the story Schmeiser turns from simply wanting to grow the genetically modified seed that ended up on his property to becoming an activist decrying the use of GMOs altogether. Soutar glosses over this change of attitude without examining its genesis in any meaningful fashion. More confusing is the floated notion in act two that Schmeiser is not well-like by his fellow townspeople. Soutar does finally decide to show some balance in her script by revealing that many farmers in Schmeiser’s town believe he’s a liar, a fame-whore and a generally detestable person. Yet all this information is rendered impotent by the fact that Schmeiser seems to continually get elected as town mayor. Here Soutar misses the opportunity to truly show the contradictions in this complex narrative and instead simply leaves the plot twist as a dismissive head-scratcher.
At the play’s conclusion, Soutar’s character acknowledges that everyone in the audience will come away with different views about the truth of the case. Perhaps more correctly, she should have acknowledged that the audience would come away with views about her truth of the case. But despite several narrative reservations, there is no denying that Seeds is a gorgeous production and an imaginative staging of one Canada’s most recent blockbuster court cases. Who knew patent law could be so sexy?
For GMO haters – The David and Goliath treatment which demonizes big biotech will appeal to you and you will be easily able to gloss over any narrative criticism thrown Schmeiser’s way. SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Lawsuits and science may not seem like entertaining fodder for a night at the theatre, but this production is far from dry. Gorgeous to look at, easy to digest and with a quick pace, the play will keep you engaged if not enthralled. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theater junkie – I rarely endorse style over substance, but in this case the production is so thrilling that the narrative issues irritate less than they would otherwise. Go for the experience and leave your red pen at home. SEE IT