If you’re planning on seeing Beothuck Street Players’ production of “Scorched” at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre next week, brace yourself.
Prepare to get cosy in your seat. Prepare to not want to blink until it’s over. Prepare for birth, death, love, hate, revenge and consolation.
And prepare for an ending that will leave you totally, positively and in all ways gobsmacked.
“When I first read it, I think I was in shock for a day,” said director Clar Doyle. “It’s a powerful play, for sure.”
Written by Lebanese-Canadian playwright Majdi Mouawad in 2005, “Scorched” is set in a city much like Montreal, with a main character, Nawal, who comes from a war-torn country, much like Lebanon.
Upon her death, Nawal leaves a strange wish for her twin children, Janine and Simon, that sends them searching for their father and brother in her homeland.
As the story progresses, the play goes back and forth between present day and memories of times when Nawal was a teenager, pregnant out of wedlock and forced to give up her baby boy, as well as her quest as a young woman to find her lost son through the violence of a civil war.
Eventually, Nawal is imprisoned and her past collides with Janine and Simon’s present in an absolutely appalling Greek tragedy-style revelation.
“Scorched” has won a number of awards, most notably the Dora Mavor Moore Award in 2007 for Best Play.
A film version, produced in Quebec and called “Incendies,” premiered at the Venice and Toronto film festivals last September. It has been nominated for an Academy Award this year for Best Foreign Language Film.
It was Doyle’s idea to produce the play here, after being introduced to it by an actor friend in Los Angeles.
He brought it to producer Ted Quinlan, and together they felt “Scorched” fit the type of work the Players were looking to do.
“It’s theatrically challenging, story-wise challenging and, to be honest with you, challenging for me, personally,” Doyle said. “When we put Beothuck Street Players together 15 or 17 years ago, part of the challenge to ourselves was to take the best of world theatre, and we always look for a challenge. That’s how we get our theatrical kicks, for lack of a better phrase, and this certainly met that.”
Previous Players productions include “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Doyle’s biggest fear for the first six months after he read “Scorched” was whether or not the show could be cast in St. John’s, since it calls for very complex, very demanding roles.
The role of Nawal also had to be cast three times — once as a teenager, once as a middle-aged woman and again as a 60-year-old lady.
About 100 actors — professional and amateur — showed up for the auditions. As a result, every role in the play is played by a different actor, unlike most of the productions by professional theatre companies, which have used less than a dozen actors to fill the various roles.
“People just wanted to be a part of this play,” Quinlan told The Telegram. “We have actors who were quite willing to accept a role where they have only one or two scenes.”
While most actors are locally based, a couple of them are Newfoundlanders who’ve come home specifically to perform in the play. Michael Chaisson, a professional actor living in Ottawa, is one of them.
Chaisson plays the role of Alphonse Lebel, the lawyer in charge of Nawal’s will.
“I think it’s fair to say that this is not a comedy. It’s a deeply involved human drama, and anybody who’s ever been a child or a parent, I think, will be compelled by this play. I suppose, however, if there are some lighter moments in the show, it’s with Lebel,” Chaisson said with a laugh. “He’s a complex but fun character, and the opportunity to play him was one I just couldn’t let go.”
Seasoned actor Patricia Andrews, whose grandparents came to Canada from Lebanon, plays the eldest version of Nawal.
“The whole play is really meaningful for me,” she said. “When you see the play you’ll know that it’s all about secrets and silence. The parallels were there and that interested me, because, really, if I had been born in another country, my life would have been completely different.
“These things really do happen in these troubled places of war, especially when women are concerned. It tells of war from a woman’s perspective, and I appreciate that. It’s a strange story, no doubt about it, but it’s so convoluted, it’s interesting theatre. You come in, sit down, pay attention and really get a piece of history along with a good piece of theatre.”
“Scorched” was particularly challenging to produce, not only because of the subject matter and the large, complex cast of characters, but because of the sheer number of scenes — 38 in total — that flick back and forth between the present day and the past.
Instead of a detailed set, the Players chose to go with large panels that are subtly backlit to represent scenes in jails, a boxing ring and homes, among others. It took about two months to work out how to stage it, Doyle said.
“One scene ends and another comes up, and there are some scenes when we’re crossing place and time,” said Doyle, who also did the lighting for the production. “We might have a scene and then someone walks past in a scene from 40 years ago. That will be a challenge to the audience, too, but we’re helping as much as we can without being patronizing.
“This is not the sort of play that’s going to fill the Arts and Culture Centre, just by the nature of it, but that can’t prevent us from doing a challenging work we believe says something. It might well be a controversial play, but I’m open to that.”
“Scorched,” which also stars Mallory Fisher and Janet Edmonds as Nawal, Jill Kennedy as Janine and Darrel Brenton as Simon, will run Feb. 2-5. Tickets are $22 general admission and $19 for students and seniors, and are available at the Arts and Culture Centre box office, or by phone at 729-3900.