Thursday, January 23, 2014

PuSh 2014: Seeds

Porte Parole's Seeds, on at the Freddy Wood Theatre in a PuSh Festival co-presentation with Theatre at UBC, is a documentary play by Annabel Soutar based on Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser's four-year legal battle with biotech giant Monsanto Inc. In 1997, having found Monsanto's genetically modified "Roundup Ready" canola growing near his farm, Schmeiser sprayed his own crop. When much of that crop survived, he realized Monsanto's seed had gotten on to his land; he then harvested this seed and replanted it. That's when Monsanto came calling, arguing that he was using Monsanto's patented technology without a license and that he should pay a fee just like all the other farmers in the area who planted its seed. Schmeiser refused, claiming that since the seed had blown onto his land, it belonged to him. But Monsanto, having conducted its own tests (whether legally or not is unclear) on Schmeiser's crops, said there was no way so much seed could have made its way onto the farmer's land unless he had purchased and planted it surreptitiously. They sued and won. And that's when things really got interesting.

First staged in 2005, this production of Seeds was updated in 2012 in collaboration with Crow's Theatre's Chris Abraham, who directs the show. Based on trial transcripts and interviews with Schmeiser, fellow farmers, executives at Monsanto, and experts in biology and agricultural science, out of her verbatim text Soutar has crafted a play at once suspenseful and philosophical. For example, following Schmeiser's loss of his initial case (which he eventually appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada), public opinion and media interest in the story shifted from whether or not the farmer was trying to shaft Monsanto to a debate on genetically modified food more generally, and why the Canadian government had okayed its introduction into our agricultural industry without public consultation (especially following bans in the EU and elsewhere). This leads our interviewer-narrator (Lisa Repo-Martell) on a search for the very meaning of life itself, one which upends, among other things, the received wisdom around Watson and Crick's double-helix theory of DNA. However, it's a credit to Soutar that she never loses sight of the initial mystery about whether or not Schmeiser conspired to dupe Monsanto about where the seed came from. No easy David vs. Goliath story (despite what one of Schmeiser's supporters states in the play), there is just enough ambiguity surrounding Schmeiser's background in his community, and his overall motives once global interest in his case takes off, to make him a suitably flawed protagonist. In his performance, the legendary Eric Peterson taps into this, moving from aw-shucks rube to savvy media celebrity to intimidating heavy with layered subtlety.

The rest of the cast is equally compelling in multiple roles and the multi-media production is snappily directed by Abraham, with just enough stage business and surprising effects to keep our interest from flagging. And it is a credit to Soutar's talents as a playwright that we never feel like we're being lectured--or hectored. My only major criticism concerns the direct address to the audience by our narrator at the end. It feels a bit weak and flat, as if Soutar didn't quite know how to end things. Which is, I guess, in keeping with the story of life itself.


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