Kerr’s directorial debut of Unity successful

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March 17, 2014

Unity (1918) 

 Phoenix Theatre, University of Victoria 

 March 12- March 22, 2014. 

 Tickets: $14 to $24. Reserve at 250-721-8000 

 Reviewed By Nadia Grutter 

 The Phoenix’s production of Unity (1918) marks a special debut for Kevin Kerr’s dark and hilarious play. This is the first time Kerr has directed his play, which won the Governor General’s Award in 2002. The epic play is narrated by a young woman named Beatrice, who reveals the inner workings of a small town in Saskatchewan that is quarantined to prevent the spread of the devastating “Spanish Flu” of 1918. A handful of young female characters carry us through their stories of love, loss and absurdity during the epidemic that killed more people than the Great War itself.  

             The script itself is genius, detailed with lively dialogue and surprising scenes. In one of the opening scenes, a man drops his wife’s dead body, which releases gas in a startling low-pitched note. The man, thinking his wife has revived, kneels over her desperately, only to realize she has broken wind.  

             One of the three leading roles, that of Sissy, was played by Haley Garnett, who illuminated the stage with charisma and energy. She was joined by the talented Amy Culliford as Beatrice and Logan Mitev, who played the blinded soldier Hart with subtlety and respect. Marisa Nielsons expressive performance of telephone operator Rose contrasted with Keshia Palms serious, demanding role as the Icelandic undertaker, Sunna. Both actresses achieved  memorable performances. All performers made use of the theatre’s aisles, taking care to bring the action close to the audience. My only quibble was with the blocking, as the actors had their backs to the audience more than needed. 

             While the acting, directing and script were impressive, the set (and set changes) were somewhat distracting. The Phoenix’s thrust stage was strewn with wood shavings, which made for some interesting emphasis when dragged bodies left bare black strips in their wake. However, wooden coffins were noisily rearranged throughout the play, and consumed more space than needed. Two massive intersecting black structures were rolled together and apart throughout the production, which seemed arbitrary and inspired confusion during the intermission: “What are those big black things?” On the other hand, an electric track set with a coffin brought characters and objects on and off the stage, which added an interesting mechanical element to the utilitarian setting. 

             The costumes were tailored well to each character, with impressive attention to detail on military outfits. The actors wore lights under their costumes, which were used sporadically as (what I interpreted to be)  beacons of morality throughout the play. Live music was provided by a talented guitarist, who used a warping pedal to imbue the sound with eeriness. The entire cast sang collectively at the end of the production, making for an unexpected musical ending to a dialogue-packed play. It might have been more effective  to have all sounds created on-stage to keep with the wonderful realness created by the intimate thrust stage, but the recorded sounds worked well. 

             All in all, The Phoenix’s production of Kerr’s award-winning play did the university proud, and should not be missed by students and community members alike.  

Nadia Grutter is the Managing Editor of the Coastal Spectator and a fourth-year student at the University of Victoria.



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