What can be said when a master storyteller, Brian Doyle, teams up with an accomplished adapter and director, Janet Irwin? The combination might leave you wanting more…
Up to Low is an adaptation of Doyle’s famous book for young adults of the same name. The performance has a large cast of eleven performers, including musicians. It’s set on an alley stage so you can see people cheerfully reacting from across the room, and has a live music accompaniment composed by Ian Tamblyn who, with his team, expertly play various folk instruments, including a saw, metal grate, and fiddle. At evening performances, drinks can be had throughout, and there’s even a mason jar of pickled eggs (an old-school Ottawa Valley favorite of dive bars) for the die-hards to snack on.
The play describes Doyle’s experiences as a child at his family’s country home in Low, Quebec, as he explained in an address on opening night. He described the playfulness and affection in the contradictory phrase of going “up” to “Low” (I have a personal connection to Doyle and was proud to sit with him at the table of honor that night). Irwin’s unique staging made the play visually interesting and entertaining. The actors generally act as part of an ensemble, like a chorus. They play many different characters you’d likely find in 1950s Ottawa. The staging made it easy to distinguish between established characters and once-offs, thanks to costume, body language, and a variety of era-accurate props. People from Ottawa will tell you that there is a deeply close community that exists alongside the city’s larger National Capital role. Ottawa is two worlds — the Federal powerhouse, and the artistic small town where everybody knows your name. The production evoked this, and Irwin’s excellent connections allowed her to recruit superb actors.
While the use of lights and projection are relatively sparse, the intimacy and electricity between the characters is exciting and palpable. Each end of the stage believably transforms into a beer hall, log cabin, and lakeside dock. In a deeper sense, the play asks the modern consumer whether our high-tech world is better or worse than low-tech Low. It also asks, can we have peace and productivity simultaneously? Or does one always come at the expense of the other? This is a local play treating global issues: the pace of technology, the fragmentation of traditional family values, and the preciousness of youth. It is a moving and inspiring piece of Ottawa Valley lore, and the least tech-heavy performance in the Magnetic North Theatre Festival, with the best acting and most transformative effect on the viewer. Its message is that we must all look inward and ensure that our community values are reflected in our daily actions. If this is your cup of tea, look for Irwin’s version of Doyle’s Angel Square at the GCTC in Ottawa this December. I’ll surely see you there.
Up to Low
Easy Street Productions and Ottawa Children’s Theatre
By Shawn W. Wenuk