'The New Canadian Curling Club' impresses to open Blyth Festival season - June 28, 2018
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
What does it mean to be Canadian? What is Canadian?
The New Canadian Curling Club, the Blyth Festival’s lead show this season, wrestles with these questions in a rather existential manner, forcing the most “Canadian” among us to revisit our own definitions and ask ourselves how Canadian we are.
To Lorne Kennedy’s Stuart MacPhail, the answer to what is Canadian is Rita MacNeil and Bobby Orr paddling a canoe. And while he isn’t wrong, audience members have to know, that with playwright Mark Crawford at the helm, it can’t simply be that straightforward.
The New Canadian Curling Club, which has its world premiere at Memorial Hall on Friday night, tells the story of a small Ontario town – a one-Tim Horton’s town, for scale – and a local initiative that strives to teach new Canadians how to curl.
The project was created by an accepting and active pillar of the community. However, when she falls and breaks her hip the night before the course is to begin, the task falls to MacPhail who is a little less cordial, but balances himself out with a healthy dose of racism.
MacPhail “welcomes” four “new” Canadians to the class in the coming weeks: Matthew Gin’s Mike Chang (Chinese), Omar Alex Khan’s Anoopjeet Singh (Indian), Parmida Vand’s Fatima Al-Sayeed (Syrian) and Marcia Johnson’s Charmaine Bailey, who reminds everyone that while she is a Jamaican immigrant, she has lived in the town for nearly 30 years, hardly qualifying her as a “new” Canadian.
Gin, Khan, Vand and Johnson are all accomplished Canadian actors who are asked to lean into their “new Canadian” roles for the show and embrace the humour of the story Crawford is trying to tell. Kennedy, on the other hand, has to lean into something totally alien to him and an attitude he finds disgusting.
In his interview with The Citizen for its “Salute to the Blyth Festival”, Kennedy said he found it challenging portraying someone with whom he had so little in common. Indeed, some of the things that come out of MacPhail’s mouth truly take the audience by surprise.
The gang gets off to a rocky start, which will come as a surprise to no one. Chang is most familiar to MacPhail as the man who has been dating his granddaughter for several years. MacPhail knows Bailey and Singh from the local Tim Horton’s, but has never before met Al-Sayeed, a member of a Syrian refugee family sponsored to come to the town.
The early results of the class are predictably comical in a Cool Runnings sort of way. Between Bailey’s bad knees, Singh’s inability to navigate on the ice and Al-Sayeed’s timidity, no one gets very far. The best student early on is Chang who consults what MacPhail calls “The YouTube” and studies up on curling best practices.
However, like we’ve come to expect with Crawford’s work, he primes the pump with authentic, rural Ontario humour and slips in real, dramatic scenarios we don’t realize we’re experiencing until they’re already happening.
With The New Canadian Curling Club, MacPhail comes face-to-face with his notion that those who make their way to Canada are handed everything when they land at the airport and whether or not his opinion truly represents reality. To the contrary, new Canadians often wake up and put their feet on the carpet every morning to bigotry, limited opportunity and enduring hardship tied to family in their home country.
However, the most crucial philosophical question at the heart of The New Canadian Curling Club that MacPhail – and many Canadians, to be honest – are forced to face is, “what does it mean to be an immigrant?” and, “what does it mean to be a Canadian?”
MacPhail speaks at length of his family’s rich, Scottish heritage, though he identifies rather definitively as a Canadian. What then makes him more Canadian than Singh, Chang, Bailey or Al-Sayeed? Is it time that makes him less of an immigrant? Is it his grasp of the English language that makes him more of a Canadian?
These are all questions that weave themselves throughout The New Canadian Curling Club. While on the surface it’s a play about learning a new sport in a new land, it can certainly be interpreted as an allegory for learning a new culture and being accepted by your new home.
Learn curling and you become Canadian, The New Canadian Curling Club would have us believe. But really, you can interchange that first statement with anything: learn English, dress “Canadian”, get a good job, etc. and you’ll be accepted as more Canadian. However, what The New Canadian Curling Club shows us is that none of us are uniquely qualified to set the rules and discern between the Canadian and un-Canadian among us. The idea of being a cultural gatekeeper is a fallacy and certainly one that’s becoming less and less relevant by the day.
What plays out on stage is expertly directed by long-time Festival collaborator Miles Potter, who worked with both Crawford and visionary production designer Steve Lucas to make audiences feel like they’re standing right there on the ice with the curlers.
Speaking with The Citizen for its “Salute to the Blyth Festival”, Potter said he was pleased Lucas was taking on the challenge of producing curling on stage, because he had no idea where to start. In the weeks that followed, they certainly figured it out.
The New Canadian Curling Club makes for a hilarious night at the theatre exploring a scenario that, admittedly, many of us may not be able to relate to firsthand. However, it provides an understanding of an ongoing scenario we could all stand to know a little bit more about, making audiences laugh along the way.
The New Canadian Curling Club is on stage until Aug. 23.