Most theatre companies can't present large-cast plays unless they have a big budget. But a school troupe like George Brown Theatre can put on a show like Raymond Storey's epic South Of China, which before now has only been staged once, at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre a decade ago.
Using the graduating class of 17, the show sometimes feels cramped in the small Tank House Theatre, but director James Simon and his young company invest it with lots of energy.
Dealing with a 16-year period beginning in 1925, the play focuses on the Canadian Sam (Adam Cunningham) and the English Cecil (Evan Smith), both of whom travel to Malaysia to begin their professional careers, Sam in the rubber industry and Cecil as a colonial overseer. Linking them is Adelaide (Claire Burns), Cecil's sister, to whom Sam becomes engaged.
That romance parallels a more covert one between Cecil and his Malaysian houseboy, Abas (Patrick Kwok-Choon), fraught not only with same-sex but also class and racial problems.
Kwok-Choon makes Abas an aware, compassionate friend to his master, while Smith grows over the course of the play, creating a Cecil who believably moves from a self-centred snob to a man who finds his moral compass and proudly accepts who he is.
Burns shows fire and wit as Adelaide to in the first act, though the writing limits her in the second, when she discovers that Sam has taken a native woman (the strong Teresa Labriola) as his lover.
Daniel Pagett brings a knowing wisdom and not a single stereotype to the role of a Eurasian hermaphrodite who acts as conscience to several of the play's characters.
The central point demonstrated at last weekend's Scenes From The Canon (Part 1), readings drawn from some of our best Canadian plays, isn't that cross-?cultural casting is politically correct.
Sure, that's true, but what was made clear again and again in the over-three-?hour presentation of scenes is that casting by talent is the best way to serve not only the play but also the audience.
This wasn't the kind of event to review. Ken Gass, co-?producer and artistic director of Canadian Rep Theatre, announced at the start that viewers were getting a peek into the rehearsal process rather than a finished production.
But watching the 19 scenes performed by a repertory company of 16 actors, we were struck by the combined talent of people from various backgrounds who'd known each other for years but have rarely had the chance to work together.
Gass intentionally programmed the same scene several times, giving directors and performers a chance to interpret the material variously. The passion, for instance, that Billy Merasty and Pamela Sinha and later Sanjay Talwar and Jani Lauzon brought to an intense scene from Judith Thompson's I Am Yours was different but equally compelling.
The other reminder of the afternoon was the strength of a developing canon of Canadian plays. From forceful works like I Am Yours and another Thompson gem, Lion In The Streets, to darkly comic pieces like Leah Cherniak, Martha Ross and Robert Morgan's The Anger In Ernest And Ernestine and George F. Walker's Problem Child, it's clear that our playwrights know how to tap deeply into the human condition.
Hope there are more readings like this planned. Or even better, a full production featuring a cross-?cultural cast.