HEAD-SMASHED-IN BUFFALO JUMP co-created and directed by Brendan Gall, co-created and performed by Chris Hanratty, Tricia Lahde, Shira Leuchter and Christopher Stanton. Presented by UnSpun Theatre at Young Centre (55 Mill). Opens tonight (Thursday, November 30) and runs to December 16, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday and Saturday 2 pm. $16-$20, $10 Monday rush. 416-866-8666. Rating: NNNNN
Unspun theatre understands the wisdom of adjusting the seasonings to improve a theatrical stew.
Two summers ago the collective troupe, which won a Dora for Thy Neighbour's Wife, had a Fringe hit with Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. The company knew that the piece deserved a life beyond the festival.
But rather than do a simple remount, the company members went back to their computers and the rehearsal hall to come up with Version 2.0.
All the participants wrote scenes for the piece, which weaves together the tale of four troubled Parkdale residents: Michelle, an agoraphobe who withdraws from the world; her willing helper Dennis; Andrea, a caregiver with a secret; and Dusan, a new Canadian who runs a pawnshop.
"We saw the Fringe as a workshop experience," says UnSpun's co-artistic director Chris Hanratty, who plays Dennis. "One of the things we realized was that the Fringe show was too cerebral, didn't involve enough movement.
"So we set up a movement workshop with performer and teacher Ker Wells to create new stories through our bodies as well as our words."
One of the things the company learned was the importance of working on their feet, not simply writing and reading around a table.
Actor Tricia Lahde is new to the production but not to the company - she performed in UnSpun's minotaur in the 2006 Fringe. She admits to going into new territory with the show.
"The script was a given, but we had to tear it apart to see what succeeded as well as what we liked about it and then add new elements to improve it.
"Working with the company turned out to be incredibly supportive. This was my first stab at writing, which was terrifying and exhilarating. It's a great feeling to see my thoughts actually part of the structure of the play."
Now the narrative threads remain pretty much the same, but the way characters develop and interact is clearer than before.
"The show is about four people and how their lives intertwine, or maybe about how they could have connected but didn't," notes Lahde. "This time around the audience sees lots of missed moments and hints of what could have happened between the characters, whether it's friendship or something more passionate.
"They're all people who feel incomplete but don't get what they need from each other."
As in the earlier script, Michelle can't leave the cocoon of her apartment and starts calling herself Thea to create a different persona. At the same time, she renames Dennis, calling him Bear.
"Michelle can't function in the world, but in renaming herself she regains some control of herself and her surroundings for a while," says Lahde.
"And with the name change to Bear, the insecure Dennis moves to an instinctive level where he searches for a love that he misses in his life," adds Hanratty.
What about the title, which refers to an Alberta World Heritage Site where a prehistoric native tribe drove buffalo herds over a cliff and harvested their carcasses?
"Several buffalo tales are woven into the play," offers Hanratty, "but the title suggests that all four characters are rushing toward an emotional cliff they can't escape. Sometimes someone's a hunter pushing, sometimes an animal being pushed, but eventually everyone has to confront being at the edge and whether or not to jump."