Owen Bishop’s Half the Battle is a remarkable master class in characterization

My dad was a navigator in Halifax and Lancaster bombers in the Second World War, but he never talked about it much. In certain moods, you could get him talking about the logistics of the bomber itself — where the rear gunner sat, how you placed bombs on night ops, that sort of thing. But he never talked about people or events, despite our constant entreaties. So I was immediately all in when I read the press release for Half the Battle, about a pilot and flight engineer in a Lancaster, sharing stories about “what brought them to war, why they fight, and what they left behind.” My dad would have hated it, but I knew that at least on a superficial level, I was going to appreciate it.

And on that level alone, it fits the bill for a pre-Remembrance Day show. The two characters begin by trading the kind of barbs you would expect from two very different men (a rule-following farmer from Alberta and a rakish one-time fisherman from Newfoundland), who have spent many hours together in combat. Forced even closer together by circumstances beyond their control, they begin to share more personal details, and discover that they have more in common than we (or they) would have thought. Along the way, they reveal their own personal narratives as well as some of the lesser-known history of Canada’s involvement in the war.

The twist here (in part) is the fact that this is a one-man show, and both characters are played by the work’s creator, Owen Bishop. The central conceit of the play is risky, and in the hands of a less accomplished actor might have been an unmitigated disaster. But this is a master class in characterization, and within a few seconds, you give over to the premise. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I’m reluctant to spoil it for you by describing it — you need to see it for yourself.

The show is the first in Sage Theatre’s new Stepping Stone Project, in which they provide mentorship and infrastructure support to emerging theatre artists to help take them to the next level in their theatre careers. This was a student project for Bishop, and remarkable in its complexity given his degree of experience. He has certainly had a number of opportunities to workshop it with feedback from his Studio 58 theatre program as well as critics and audiences at the Edmonton Fringe, and his ease with the material is evident. I wish I had seen it on the Fringe circuit so that I could comment on how much the direction by Shelby Nicole Reinitz in this incarnation has changed the performance. Certainly the small Motel Theatre space is well-suited for the solo show, although the blocking and profile configuration is a bit hard on the neck since he spends the vast majority of the play at one end of the space.

This is a story about character, not plot. In many ways, it’s like a one-man Waiting for Godot, notwithstanding the Big Twist ending that, to be honest, I might have left out. The evolving relationship between the two men, and what it means, might have generated more fascinating questions had the play ended 30 seconds earlier. But that’s a small quibble with what is a remarkable first play, and a remarkable performance.

(Photo courtesy Owen Bishop, DIY Theatre.)

Half the Battle runs at the Motel Theatre in Arts Commons until November 10.

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.