James Stewart Reaney
James’s Brander Newer Blogger
The coolest place to be this summer is the Blyth Festival’s curling rink.
So before getting into the background about the 2018 Huron County fest’s excellent production of The New Canadian Curling Club, here are two guarantees when it comes to Mark Crawford’s play.
You will laugh. Out loud. And often.
You will reflect on what is to be Canadian.
Which is what all world premieres of Canadian comedies should be doing.
Here is all you need to know: It is funny, very funny. In light of the Great Darkness spreading over the United States (and too much of the world), it is profound and diverse and encouraging.
Inspired by Miles Potter’s direction —which perfectly places the meditative moments amid the one-liners and physical comedy — the cast sweeps its way through the Crawford script.
The New Canadian Curling Club is set at the arena in a small Souwesto town, blessed with one Tim Hortons — where two of the five characters work — and a tradition of curling excellence going back at least seven generations.
Embittered keeper of the curling flame is Stuart MacPhail (the terrific Lorne Kennedy). Stuart’s slow decline from ace curler to arena maintenance worker is rocked when he finds himself earning an extra hour of pay a week by coaching a diverse quartet of the town’s “new Canadians.”
Medical student Mike Chang (Matthew Gin), Tim Hortons employees Charmaine Bailey (Marcia Johnson) and Anoopjeet Singh (Omar Alex Khan) and teenage Syrian refugee Fatima Al-Sayed (Parmida Vand) have all responded to an offer of free curling lessons. Devised by Stuart’s ex as a way of celebrating diversity and Canadian traditions, the weekly lessons end up under Stuart’s guidance when his ex succumbs to an off-stage, on-ice injury before the first one.
Cue the laughs as Stuart’s prejudiced comments about the quartet’s backgrounds and impatience with their earnest misunderstandings about curling bump into four funny and strong stones.
Gin, Johnson, Khan and Vand’s characters all fire back at Stuart’s fool prejudice — while also bonding as novice curlers. They also share their own, often painful stories even as they keep up the zingers.
Chang is romantically involved with Stuart’s daughter, a fellow medical student. Bailey is recently widowed, after following her future husband to Souwesto from Jamaica — where he had been vacationing — more than 25 years earlier. Singh landed in town, lured by a junior Tim Horton’s job — at the franchise helmed by Bailey — as a way of escaping his years of misery sharing space with scheming South Asian relatives in Mississauga.
Like any “old Canadian” town teen, al-Sayed is on her phone all the time. But her texts are life-and-death — she is desperately trying to stay in touch with her brother, who did not escape from Syria with the rest of the family. Those tense exchanges expressed through Vand’s beautiful changes in emphasis as she reacts to her brother’s hopes and fears (unheard by the audience) call up the most powerful sense of what Canada might be.
Crawford weaves these deeper revelations into the play’s entertainments — including Khan’s pratfalls as he copes with the ice and Vand’s beatboxing sound effects when she adjusts Stuart’s description of curling as chess on ice to her analytics.
Inevitably, Stuart’s own deep wound is revealed — as are the MacPhail family’s epic connection with the town’s signature bonspiel and its Royal Highlander trophy. Just as inevitably, the New Canadian rink enters the bonspiel.
Let’s leave the plot summarizing there. The New Canadian Curling Club comes with the James Stewart Reaney famed Boneyard Man guarantee: if Mark Crawford’s play doesn’t make you merry, I will personally refund your money.
One catch: First, I get to check your pulse. You might be dead.
Ditto for the Canadian identity theme: In a living image repeated several times, Potter has the four “New Canadians” reaching out to shake hands with their opponent — and the audience.. If those four great-hearted curlers don’t make you think about Canada’s greatness, the same deal applies.
On matters of laughter and identity, The New Canadian Curling Club is on the button.
So hurry hard up to Blyth.
There are many many — what do we call them? Four-letter words? Crude language? Curse words? — in the play. You know them all. Eff. Ess. Asshat. Those words. As a notice near the entrance alerts fans – the play has dialogue that you would hear at the rink.
Still, the relative frequency of these one – or two-syllable words caused even the LondonFuse contributor to cringe a bit. Couldn’t it have been just as good with, say, a CBC Little Mosque On The Prairie (a compliment) approach?
No. A point is being made. As the play continued and the audience laughed at many of these raunchy punchlines — including a surprise comment from Fatima — this realization set in.
There is offensive language in The New Canadian Curling Club. But it’s Stuart’s “jokes” that are obscene. Those are the words that hurt — not the swear words.
Yes, the s-bombs may make (some of) us feel uncomfortable even as we (well, some of us) laugh or groan off Stuart. Not that he says the n-word. He just says things that anger or wound or bite the other characters.
Still, the curling lessons continue and Stuart looks back with new understanding to his “new Canadian” Scottish ancestors.
As an example of how words may be heard or misheard, Fatima says her brother stayed in Syria because he was part of a group. Charmaine is her friend and part of the church group that sponsored the Syrian family — but she (or a like-minded church member) hears “group” as meaning terrorist.
Fatima’s brother is deemed too dangerous to welcome because no one waited to hear Fatima explain about the group.
You get to Huron County’s Home Of The Hits by driving 95 km (or so) north from London on Hwy 4. The Blyth Festival’s main stage is at the Blyth Memorial Community Hall, 431 Queen St., Blyth. The New Canadian Curling Club opened the multi-production 2018 Blyth Festival season on Friday, June 22. it s five actors also star in 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt which opens Aug. 3. The fest’s 44th season of live, original, Canadian theatre continues until Sept. 15. Visit blythfestival.com for details.
Also recommended in Blyth: In addition to the amazing plays, stop by the Cowbell Farm (ace craft brewery on tap but call ahead for dining — it is tres popular); Maple And Moose (Canadiana); Pick A Posie (vintage costumes & clothes); Part II Bistro (fine food at opening night gala); and much, much more.
Grand Theatre connection: Omar Alex Khan was in A Thousand Splendid Sun’s at the Richmond Street landmark earlier this year.
The last words: Dozens of plays originating at the Blyth Festival have been hits for theatres everywhere. In a class of its own and the non-Stratford Souwesto summer fest that counts. Bravo.