Thirty years later, One Yellow Rabbit’s The Land, The Animals still a different theatrical beast

There is an inevitable subjectivity to any recreation of past events. Whether it’s a result of our notoriously inaccurate human memory, or the selectivity and political tinge of the historical record, reality exists only in the moment, and can’t ever truly be recaptured. 

I honestly don’t remember any concrete details from The Land, The Animals in its 1991 incarnation. I like to think that it’s because I was so very young and who remembers plays they saw when they were three years old? But in fact it was one of the shows I saw when I was first pretending to be a theatre critic at a student newspaper, and I do remember telling someone at the time that One Yellow Rabbit made me think that maybe I wasn’t smart enough for this gig. 

I also didn’t think much of red wine at the time, and I think I’ve grown into both. 

The now-familiar creative voice of the Rabbit ensemble, frequently imitated by artists who followed, was relatively new at the time. The poetic, often opaque text by Blake Brooker was unusual enough, but pair it with the raw physicality infused by dancer and choreographer Denise Clarke, and for conservative local theatre audiences trying to force the company into a binary definition of theatre or dance, that was perplexing. And the way they managed to take deadly serious topics and drive them directly into the centre of your brain using broad comedy (often featuring the striking expressivity of ensemble member Andy Curtis) was also a little disorienting. 

It’s not just the restaging of a 30-year-old show that causes me to think about the Rabbits of the past and their evolution over the years. The theme of the play also revolves around recapturing and reinterpreting past events, in light of future knowledge. 

The show is inspired by an event which feels apocryphal but is apparently true. Playwright and director Brooker answered a knock at the door in 1989 to find a young man asking to phone 911 because he had seen a man lying in the river. The man was located and had died, but became the focus of the play that has outlived him by more than 30 years. Here, the nameless man becomes Cy, a Calgary geologist. Three scientists from the future reflect on what they know about Cy, and muse about the how and where and ultimately why he ended up in the Bow River on a June afternoon. 

In the course of their examination of the evidence, they reflect on Cy’s job which they describe as extracting toxins from underground, and contrast it with his love of nature and in particular, birds. They describe a society that surrounded and shaped him — one that was descending into an ecological crisis that was beginning to make animals, including perhaps humans, extinct. They acknowledge their own investment in the answers, even as they make an effort at objective analysis. Is their interpretation correct? Have they missed important details that never made it into the official record? It’s clear that they (and we) can never really know. 

The absolute mastery of the performers is hard to dispute. Clarke and Curtis reprise their roles, and the part played originally by the late Michael Green is now filled by Christopher Hunt, who has developed a recurrent collaboration with Curtis over the years and seems as if he was always part of this ensemble. The characters often finish each others’ sentences, and you can imagine the actors doing the same at the after-party. David Rhymer provides an on-stage soundtrack for the action, as he has done in so many previous OYR productions, and his composition shapes the emotional experience as much as does the text. If I recalled a single detail of the original staging or text, I might be able to comment on what Brooker has done differently this time around, but knowing this company, I imagine they’ve started fresh, and built it around actors and dancers who are 30 years older and wiser than last time around. 

There were a pair of millenials sitting next to me who had clearly never had this kind of theatre experience before, and as the house lights came up, they were already struggling to articulate their response. I wanted to tell them to wait 30 years before they render a verdict. 

The Land, The Animals runs through until Jan. 18 at 7:30 p.m. in the Big Secret Theatre as part of the High Performance Rodeo. 

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