Character-driven play envisions Lac-Mégantic disaster in N.B. context
Compelling characters and multiple timelines come together in Len Falkenstein’s emotionally gripping, thought-provoking play Lac/Athabasca. The play tells a story about the oil industry and its effects on Canadian society, inspired by the 2013 real-life disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Que.
In 2013, an oil train derailed and crashed in the downtown area of Lac-Mégantic, a small Quebec town, resulting in a fire, explosions and over 40 casualties. The play, whose touring cast came to Mount Allison last week with Live Bait Theatre, is based on this disaster but focuses heavily on how the characters are impacted by it. Falkenstein changed the setting of the disaster from Quebec to New Brunswick, allowing for a more Maritime interpretation, as well as the use of local dialects.
The production’s set and costume design was minimalist yet effective. Though each actor played multiple characters, they wore one outfit throughout the show with no costume changes. Similarly, the set was simple but versatile, and used projection screens and rehearsal cubes to create a variety of scenes and images. The simple design allowed the audience to focus entirely on the story without being distracted by elaborate visual details.
The most effective part of the set was a toy train set and small model buildings, which actors slowly brought out and placed on the stage floor throughout the show. The end result was a cluster of buildings, representing the downtown area where the disaster occurred, with actors manually moving the toy train to derail and crash.
This brought a unique, almost metatheatrical element to the narrative. It wasn’t just actors trying to recreate the event, but the characters themselves re-enacting that moment and reflecting on the experience. The production incorporated this type of storytelling throughout; while some scenes seemed to play out a particular moment as it occurred, most characters used monologues to describe moments in their personal history. This reinforced the play’s emphasis on the people affected by the disaster, rather than the disaster itself.
I was impressed by each actor’s ability to tackle multiple characters, many of whom differ greatly from one another. This was particularly noticeable when they shifted between characters on stage. Sometimes these shifts were as sudden as the flicking of a light switch, but the cast and crew pulled it off every time. Each actor employed their own idiosyncrasies, body language and accents or dialects that set them apart from the rest. This, and the actors’ effortless delivery of these traits, rendered costume changes unnecessary, as it was easy to discern which character was onstage at that moment.
The story is told through multiple plotlines, featuring different characters who are supposed to all connect to one another. Unfortunately, however, I sometimes found it difficult to keep up with all of these stories or understand their place in the larger narrative. For example, I didn’t understand the role of the 19th-century fur traders and their Aboriginal woman companion. It just seemed out of place and, while essential to Canadian history more broadly, didn’t seem to contribute to the contemporary story being told.
That bit of confusion aside, Lac/Athabasca was a captivating show with a powerful message, and this cast of actors did the show justice. It addressed a tragedy and its effects on a social level while also honing in on the personal, individual struggles of the people who endured it. Falkenstein’s play, and this particular production, demonstrate the potential for theatre as a tool for social change.