Review: The Scavenger’s Daughter tortures history in an effectively nightmarish way
J. KELLY NESTRUCK, JANUARY 18, 2019, 3 out of 4 stars
The Scavenger’s Daughter, the second play in Susanna Fournier’s ambitious Empire Trilogy, now on at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times, gets its name from a torture device invented during the reign of Henry VIII.
This cruel instrument is sort of the opposite of the rack: Instead of stretching a body out, it crunches a body down into a painful compressed position.
In her political fantasy play named after this device, Fournier has tortured history in a similar way. She’s compressed wars of conquest, religious wars, colonial wars and wars on terror into a single fictional war that alludes to them all. She’s compressed time, too: “Each and every moment, pasts, presents and futures – happening now.”
The Scavenger’s Daughter takes place in an army camp on the edge of Fournier’s fictional all-encompassing Empire.
Jack (Josh Johnston), an orphan who enlisted in the “King’s Children” army when he was six and is now 20 years old, has returned from a transformative experience in a mission outside of the camp. A “citizen” has billeted him in a comfy house, taught him to read – and has offered to buy him out of the army and have him marry his daughter.
Back in his old world, Jack’s new engagement breaks the heart of his 19-year-old girlfriend, Sarah (Samantha Brown), the daughter of the madam at the local brothel.
It also complicates his relationships with his best friend Ash (Conor Wylie), who has been selling morphine in order to earn money to buy his own freedom, and with his commanding officer Webb (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio), who now sees Jack as holding ideas above his station.
Rounding out the characters is a disfigured cook known only as Cook (the comical Christopher Stanton), who believes in keeping his head down and kowtowing to power. (He seems a nod to the cook in a famous anti-war play, Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children.)
Frequent “dispatches" spoken by all the actors as a chorus, clutching microphones that descend from the ceiling, give us poetic propaganda from the righteous war being waged in the name of the King beyond the camp walls.
In these, Fournier mashes up famous essays and speeches so that Rousseau and Marx sit side by side in the same sentence, or words from the Declaration of Independence saddle up next to ones from the George W. Bush era. The reasons for war change, but the underlying forces are the same, she seems to say; her own war as a playwright seems to be against the tyranny of reason altogether.
Director Ted Witzel and his scenographer Michelle Tracey have created a sprawling, evocative set to house Fournier’s strange but familiar world.
There’s a pile of dirt in the centre of the stage that a character wearing only a gas mask emerges from at the startling start. Later, giant crates, lit like the lair of Sweeney Todd, roll on and off through a terrifyingly noisy metal door.
Projected words and images (by Wesley McKenzie) expand the world of the Empire further; they’re a kind of complementary video art project that take us through visuals of warfare and also into the animal realm.
While the atmosphere of the play and production are effectively nightmarish, the plot is more difficult to get invested in.
The King has changed his drug policies – and Webb is now on the hunt for the person whose been supplying the soldiers with unauthorized morphine. At the same time, other supplies are not arriving as the tide turns in the abstract war.
The camp is being starved, the soldiers are in withdrawal – and more than one seems to be going mad. But this process of disintegration takes place at an emotional remove.
It’s difficult given Brown and Johnston’s somewhat blank characterizations to figure out how they really feel about each other – and care about whether they’re together or apart.
While Gonzalez-Vio, Stanton and Wylie’s performances are more vivid, I wasn’t compelled by the relationships among the men, either. Toxic masculinity is on full display, but their humanity is too hidden.
There are some connections to The Philosopher’s Wife, Fournier’s first show in the Empire Trilogy set a generation earlier, which I won’t spoil for those on the overall journey. In a way, I feel unable to truly judge The Scavenger’s Daughter on its own until I see Four Sisters, the final chapter, set 259 years later on the same land, which will premiere at the Luminato Festival later this year. Will this exercise in world building (or deconstructing) end with a bang or whimper?