The Debauchery Continues...
...in LIFER Ogoki Nights II
by Chad Dembski
LIFER (Ogoki Nights II) is the continued story of tree planting that in this version takes place up in Northern Ontario near Wawa ("so nice they named it twice" is one of the funnier lines of the play) and other tiny Ontario towns where they travel to plant. I did not see the first version of this play (Ogoki Nights I) but I can imagine it having quite the same type of premise; a large cast on a small stage, lots of transitions (black outs, set changes, props), and tons of references to the life of a tree planter. I have never been a tree planter myself so when at the door I could hear them asking if each member of the audience coming in had been a tree planter ($10.00 a ticket, the only discount they offer) I could tell this piece was made by and for a very specific audience.
There were quite a lot of story lines, most leading to the premise that tree planting is brutal, dangerous (bears, black fly bites) and also a huge debauchery of drugs, alcohol and sex.
This played out in spectacular fashion last night at Theatre Saint-Catherine where for the first time in years I saw (and inhaled) real cigarette smoking on stage (and a lot of it), drinking on stage, audience talking back throughout the show (or to each other), kids sitting in the front row (though there was tons of swearing). In the program the second page has a glossary of terms that describes the various slang and official terms used by tree planters and the people they work with in the forests. From the moment the show started I felt like I was in a rock club more than a theatre, with live music provided by Jeff Louch (who also has some humorous cameos as a Bear), the aforementioned audience participation (though not invited by the cast), smoking, drinking - and there also is a casual approach to transitions and the cues seeming random at times. As the story of LIFER unfolds there is a rookie tree planter who wants to quit, a pregnant PM (think it's the boss, not in the glossary), a murdering tree planter with a German accent, a second year tree planter who may become a Lifer and another boss of some kind (Lark, played by the excellent Alain Mercieca) who does crazy stuff (and doubles as a rapping evil boss from another camp). There were quite a lot of story lines, most leading to the premise that tree planting is brutal, dangerous (bears, black fly bites) and also a huge debauchery of drugs, alcohol and sex.
I don't doubt that tree planting is an exciting, grueling, physically intense and emotional journey for those involved but I got very little of that from watching this piece.
While at times funny (and Alain Mercieca is incredibly funny almost every second he is on stage), it seems the real experiences of tree planters do not actually need that much sending up and that it is extremely tough to condense two months of intense working and socializing into a two hour play. I don't doubt that tree planting is an exciting, gruelling, physically intense and emotional journey for those involved but I got very little of that from watching this piece. I heard it referenced many times but this company played it far more for comedy and laughs than anything else (which may have been their point). With at least seven people on stage at a time for most of the piece, trying to keep track of each character was hard enough, much less all the dramatic story lines that kept changing, getting dropped and making way for new ones coming out of nowhere. Part of me loved this chaos, the sloppy cues ( many times the lights came up too early or too late, sound cues were all over the place including the always doomed gun shot moment), the awkward delivery of lines (the show almost stopping at times as people waited for whose line it was next) but this did not add up to well made theatre.
I was actually interested in what seemed like genuinely incredible stories of survival, so after it was finished I left wishing I had heard the tales as they actually happened, possibly with the underused but interesting video projection backdrop. As the piece seemed to sit awkwardly between comedy and drama (there are some earnest monologues about the freedom of the outdoors) it never found the best way to express these unique experiences.
Again, I have not been a tree planter, so if you have worked as a tree planter before (as it seemed most if not all the audience on opening had), it may be a whole different kind of play for you. For me even after being given so much I still craved to feel emotional in the way creator Alain Mercieca describes his memories coming back to him with fellow collaborator Jason Pinard.
Chad Dembski's web site: surprise performance