Friday, August 17, 2007

Theatre Review: The Drawer Boy

The Drawer Boy, by Michael Healey. Gore Bay Players, Gore Bay ON, June 27 2007.

Two bachelor farmers, Morgan and Angus, friends since childhood, live together. Angus has been damaged by war. Morgan tells him the story of how they met two English girls, Sally and Frances, brought them back to Canada, and lost them in a car accident. This story fills in the gaps in Angus's memory, for five minutes or so. Myles, a young actor, asks to stay with them in order to learn about farming, as his collective' is 'writing' a play about farmers. This affords an excuse for a number of more or less corny jokes about how the uncouth farmer takes in the sophisticated city slicker.

But Myles overhears the story, and uses it as his scene in the play. Morgan and Angus see the rehearsal, and when they return from the theatre, Angus remembers not only Myles but the story as well. His memory seems to be restored, until Morgan has to admit that he made up the story. The injury that robbed Angus of his memory also made him moody and depressed, until Sally and Frances left them. Not much of a story, really, but Healey presents and reveals it layer by layer until we are left with what seems to be the truth.

The three actors did a creditable job, making us believe their characters and the gradual unfolding of Angus' and Morgan's history. Myles was played a little too much on one-note, but then he's not a complex character. Naive and trusting, he accepts Morgans deceptions and tricks at face value, and thinks he can somehow cure Angus. He almost succeeds, too. Morgan was more subtly portrayed, and he is a more complex person. Who would have thought that the boy who loved on action and adventure, who went to war because he wanted an adventure, would be so sensitive to his friend's needs, and invent such a tale to comfort him? Angus was the most difficult character to play, as his memory loss and repetitive compulsions tempt the actor to caricature, but this did not happen here. The transition into apparently full recovery of memory, his realisation that his memories are false, and that the truth would hurt, and his relapse into the forgetfulness that keeps him happy, were very well done. The set was a simple, semi-abstract portrayal of the kitchen and porch. Lighting shifted attention to the two acting areas, and colours, though simple, effectively signalled shifts in time. The music (what play these days doesn't use a soundtrack as a movie does?) was blessedly unobtrusive, and served more to reinforce the mood than guide it.

All in all, a very good production. Walter Maskel can be proud of his cast and crew. Marie and I thoroughly enjoyed it. If you get a chance to see it, do so.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Book Review: WLT, A Radio Romance

WLT: A Radio Romance by Garrison Keillor (1991)

I vaguely recall negative reviews of this book when it first appeared. It didn't conform to the cosy, down-home image that Keillor's fans had formed of him, based on his Prairie Home Companion tales. It's raunchy, rude, and cynical, yet underlying it is the streak of melancholy that also supports PHC.

Keillor is a master of the deadpan style that make horrors and ecstasies equally mundane - in this, he belongs with Raymond Carver and like-minded writers. The plot line that holds these rambling chapters together is Francis With's rise in radio and his eventual jump to TV. He renames himself Frank White, cultivates a resonant voice, makes himself an indispensable factotum to the station's owners, and after a bizarre road trip (designed to jettison an out-of-date Gospel music group from WLT) walks into a TV studio and starts talking. In the last chapter, told from the point of view of a muck-raking biographer, we learn that White married his sweetheart, had three children, and became the grand old man of television news. Hence the romance of the sub-title: Keillor's novel is a melodramatic fantasy. But despite the weirdness, the story has the ring of truth. That's the secret of Keillor's success as a raconteur. His husky, slightly bemused voice makes us believe even the most bizarre incidents and improbable coincidences. But unlike well-crafted novels, life does consist of bizarre events and improbable coincidences.

If you want to pick a nit, this book at times seemed to go on too long. ***

Book Review: The First Chimpanzee

The First Chimpanzee, by John Gribbin, & Jeremy Cherfas (2001)

An extended (and IMO unnecessarily long) argument that humans, chimps, and gorillas shared a common hominid ancestor some 3 to 4 million years ago. In other words, the chimp-gorilla line split from the human line after the evolution of hominids, not before. That would make chimps and gorillas hominids.

This hypothesis was developed by Sarich and Wilson in the late 1960s, when the molecular clock was first calibrated. The argument rests on molecular biology, and the development of the molecular clock in particular. It's been shown that DNA/RNA and hence proteins evolve at surprisingly steady rates. This enables the calculation not of dates but of ratios of time spans, and hence of the relative positions of divergence points in the evolutionary trees of related species. Add a few dates, and the ratios can be used to locate points in time. Fossil evidence has calibrated the molecular clock pretty accurately for non-human genera, and for vertebrates and chordates generally, so that its application to the primate group should be a no-brainer.

However, paleontologists don't like to have their speculations checked by external objective evidence. Even amongst themselves, they get rather testy when a colleague finds a fossil that requires "re-evaluation" of existing guesses.

Along the way, Gribbin and Cherfas provide reams of interesting data, the most important of which is that the sum total of all humanoid fossils could be laid out on a dining room table. Most of them are teeth. Insofar as I can judge the evidence, I go with Gribbin and Cherfas. Well written, but somewhat whingey in the final chapters, where they discuss the reception of the Sarich-Wilson hypothesis, which they support. So the rejection of that hypothesis becomes quite personal for them. **-½