2014 Next Stage Theatre Festival Review: Rifles (Praxis Theatre)

The cast, set and sound sell this historic tale in Rifles at Toronto’s Next Stage Theatre Festival

The 2014 Next Stage Theatre Festival is now in full swing, and last night I attended the premier of Praxis Theatre’s Rifles. Taking place in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, Rifles is about Señora Teresa Carrar’s (Kate Hennig) refusal to choose sides between the government and the rebellion. Her husband died fighting, and she’s determined to keep her two sons alive and out of the conflict by remaining neutral.

The playwright of Rifles, Nicolas Billon, recently won the 2013 Governor General’s Award for Drama for Fault Lines. Billion’s adaptation is based on Bertolt Brecht’s Señora Carrar’s Rifles from 1937, which in turn is an adaptation of John Millington Synge’s play Riders to the Sea from 1904.

Bearing all of that in mind, it puzzles me to have to say that I think the script for Rifles is the worst part of what is overall a decent show.

There are a lot of lovely things going on outside the script. The cast is stellar, particularly Hennig, Hume Baugh as Father Francisco, and Araya Mengesha as Jose Carrar. The show is worth seeing simply for that reason.

The set design is beautiful. It consists of a series of boxes and was done nearly entirely in shades of brown. A variety of objects hang from the ceiling, simulating walls but still keeping the space open – for instance, a hanging window with shutters, as well as a cross. It was lovely. The sound effects are performed right on stage by a drummer – simulating gunshots, radio announcements, weather effects, etc. – and his performance was particularly awesome. You could see that he was playing a piece of foil or a tube, but it absolutely got across how far off in the distance the gunfire was supposed to be.

Nevertheless, I had issues with the story. There are at least four separate characters that didn’t need to be in the show. They served no particular point to the plot. That is not to say that they weren’t performed well – they certainly were – but they didn’t advance the story in a meaningful way. I also found the characters in general to be more archetypal than fleshed-out human beings. And because they were archetypes instead of people, to me, what they said felt more like an intellectual debate or an essay rather than genuine dialogue.

While I will not spoil it for you if you want to see it, I also had trouble with the ending. It was predictable, and there was so much potential to go different ways with it – ways that, in my opinion, could have been much more compelling. The debate had a definite answer by the end, an answer that was typical… and therefore unsatisfactory.

There are a lot of elements, particularly performances and design, which make Rifles worth checking out. Despite that, I left the theatre feeling underwhelmed.  

Details:

Photo of Kate Hennig and Cyrus Lane by Max B. Telzerow.

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