New Salt-water Moon de­parts from tra­di­tion

Di­rec­tor Ravi Jain em­ploys di­verse cast­ing and a stripped-down set to reimag­ine a Cana­dian clas­sic

The Georgia Straight - - Arts -

When Fac­tory The­atre asked in-de­mand Toronto di­rec­tor Ravi Jain to stage a “clas­sic Cana­dian play” for its stripped­down Naked sea­son in 2015-16, the re­quest set off an in­ter­nal in­quiry. This is, af­ter all, a guy who ques­tions things so much he runs a Toronto com­pany called Why Not The­atre.

“What is a Cana­dian clas­sic?” asks Jain, who’s prob­a­bly best-known out here for the Arts Club’s Brim­ful of Asha, a play he per­formed with his own mother about his par­ents’ failed at­tempt to ar­range a mar­riage for him in India. Speak­ing to the Straight from Toronto, he con­tin­ues: “What does it mean to be Cana­dian? What do I pic­ture when I close my eyes and think of Canada?”

Sur­pris­ingly, he chose David French’s Salt-water Moon, a play he had heard about as a rite of pas­sage for ac­tors, but one he had never seen. And when he read the story of the fraught re­union be­tween two young New­found­lan­ders in 1926, he pic­tured it with ac­tors of colour.

“I wanted to find a way to open up the story to a dif­fer­ent lens—to hon­our tra­di­tions yet bring some­thing new to it,” Jain ex­plains. Was he mak­ing a state­ment in his cast­ing? “Be­cause the play is a clas­sic and ev­ery time you do it you’re in con­ver­sa­tion with ev­ery play that’s been done, it’s a po­lit­i­cal state­ment be­cause it’s never been done be­fore.”

Even Jain has been fas­ci­nated by the depth his cast­ing of Mayko Nguyen and Kawa Ada in the roles of the for­mer lovers has brought to the work. Their life ex­pe­ri­ence speaks to all the im­por­tant themes, from fam­ily and class to his­tory and mi­gra­tion, he says.

Hav­ing the play pared down to its es­sen­tials, lit only with a dream­like sea of can­dles to stand in for the starry night, adds to the per­form­ers’ du­ties, how­ever. “It’s a chal­lenge for the ac­tors,” Jain ad­mits. “They re­ally have to be as hon­est as pos­si­ble. Get­ting them to be as vul­ner­a­ble as pos­si­ble was re­ally a lot of the work we did.”

The cast­ing and min­i­mal­ist yet at­mo­spheric set­ting weren’t the only ar­eas where Jain de­parted from tra­di­tional ren­di­tions of Salt-water Moon. He’s added a mu­si­cian-nar­ra­tor, played by Ania Soul.

“I was think­ing about the East Coast sto­ry­telling tra­di­tions and troubadours, so I added this char­ac­ter of the nar­ra­tor that would score the piece,” ex­plains the af­fa­ble di­rec­tor, who’s busy jug­gling re­hearsals for an al­most all-fe­male ver­sion of An­i­mal Farm at Soulpep­per The­atre along with a new Pun­jabi Sikh, Kelowna-set spin on An­ton Chekhov’s The Cherry Or­chard at the Shaw Fes­ti­val. (The play, The Or­chard [Af­ter Chekhov], by Sarena Par­mar, has just been an­nounced as part of the Arts Club’s 2018-19 sea­son.) “It added this mu­si­cal ele­ment that would be true to that part of the world. And that gave me the idea of the can­dles.”

The re­sult is a pro­duc­tion that’s been called “sim­ply beau­ti­ful” and “emo­tion­ally hon­est”. This from a project Jain es­sen­tially built from scratch.

“I like to fig­ure some­thing out and I like to work on things that are say­ing some­thing about the world that I’m in—where con­tent is as im­por­tant as the form,” says the ac­tor-di­rec­tor, whose di­verse train­ing in­cludes the Lon­don Academy of Mu­sic and Dra­matic Art, New York Univer­sity’s Tisch School of the Arts, and the move­ment-ori­ented Jacques Le­coq school in Paris. “For me as a cre­ator it’s about dis­cov­er­ing some­thing new. I love things where I’m a lit­tle out of my ele­ment; it forces me to ex­er­cise some­thing new.”

As the show pre­pares to travel to the Gate­way The­atre here, Jain finds him­self at the fore­front of changes that are fi­nally hap­pen­ing on a larger scale on Cana­dian stages, where di­ver­sity and non­tra­di­tional cast­ing seem to be top-of-mind.

“Progress is be­ing made, but I think it’s still slow. Peo­ple have been do­ing this for a long time in the in­de­pen­dent sec­tor and now the main­stream is catch­ing on,” he ob­serves. “I hope it can free us up from an idea of re­al­ism that has limited op­por­tu­ni­ties. It’s re­ally nar­rowed ideas of what the­atre can be.”

Salt-water Moon.

Mayko Nguyen and Kawa Ada help breathe new life into David French’s beloved New­found­land-set Joseph Michael photo.

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