RIFLES by Nicolas Billon, adapted from Bertolt Brecht (Praxis/Next Stage). At Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst). January 11 at 2:30 pm, January 12, 15 and 18 at 7 pm, January 13 at 9:15 pm, January 16 at 5 pm, January 19 at 9:30 pm. 416-966-1062. See listing. Rating: NNNN
Though award-winning playwright Nicolas Billon adapted Rifles from a 1937 Brecht play, Señora Carrar's Rifles, the result feels not Brechtian but rather like classical Greek tragedy. In its premiere production, the play has the same power as that ancient form.
Set in a Spanish fishing village during the Spanish Civil War, Rifles focuses on the Carrar family, led by Señora Carrar (Kate Hennig) after her husband was killed opposing Franco's forces. Though sons José (Araya Mengesha) and Juan want to fight with other villagers for the republican militia, she guilts them into staying home, turning the family into pariahs in the community.
On one eventful evening, Pedro (Cyrus Lane), a relative, arrives ostensibly to collect supplies for those fighting at the front but actually to collect the household's rifles. In a series of encounters with local figures, including neighbours and a priest, Carrar and Pedro present their firmly held beliefs whether or not to take part in the battle.
She refuses to get involved in the fighting, believing that such a course will save her family, while he argues that standing up to a fascistic enemy is the only way to defeat evil. Taking a neutral, uninvolved position, where one neither for nor against anything, simply helps the enemy.
Under Michael Wheeler's direction, the production is emotionally taut even before the first word is spoken. At the rear of the space, composer and performer Beau Andrew Dixon uses drums and other percussive instruments to suggest the bombs and gunfire just down the road as Franco's forces approach the village. Dixon also voices the demagogic radio broadcasts that spill over from an adjoining house.
Hennig's stoic widow and mother rightly anchors the show, initially stolid and then as firm as granite when she refuses to give Pedro the rifles. She uses any trick she can to get her way, from steely commands to whiny, invented ailments. Even the affection for her children has a chilly feel as she holds to the idea that poverty and religion are her family's safeguards.
Lane's Pedro is equally powerful, his passion infusing his pleas and arguments. One of the best scenes is that between Pedro and the village priest (Hume Baugh), who takes care of families whose members have gone to fight but won't take part in the battle himself. Though Pedro keeps pushing the priest to take a side, the cleric dodges all the key questions. The result is a fascinating cat-and-mouse exchange.
There's also fine work by Barbara Gordon as a neighbour who seems at first to be on Carrar's side, but when she recounts the loss within her own family her argument turns around.
Billon also develops a minor character from the original play, here an injured British soldier (Philip Graeme) fighting for the international brigade. The playwright's said that the figure represents George Orwell, who functions largely as a witness to the action. In performance, the soldier's role isn't really clear, but Billon's also talked about developing the play into a longer work, one in which the character would have a larger part.
But this first version of Rifles, with its rough wooden set by Erin Gerofsky lit by Rebecca Vandevelde, is still one of the highlights of The Next Stage. Silence is as gripping as speech in this tense world, and the result is an emotionally raw, riveting show.