Theatre Network play discusses oppression and liberation
Playwright Chris Craddock’s latest production, Irma Voth, tells the story of daughters in a Canadian Mennonite family, transplanted suddenly to rural Mexico for mysterious reasons. The Theatre Network play is an adaptation of Miriam Toews’ 2011 novel of the same name.
Directed by Bradley Moss and starring Andréa Jorawsky as Irma, the play tells the story of the exuberant rebellion of the daughters of a Canadian Mennonite family transplanted suddenly to rural Mexico for mysterious reasons.
This is the second Toews adaptation by Craddock, who previously tackled Summer of my Amazing Luck for Theatre Network in 2005. The production was met with success across Canada and fostered an ongoing relationship with the Manitoba Theatre Centre—the co-commissioners of Craddock’s script with Theatre Network.
Ascetic religious cultures that reject the world and its modern conveniences seem to be having a moment in artistic portrayals. The story of young women seeking freedom from the religious oppression of their families and communities, is familiar not only to Edmonton audiences—who have been treated to a wide variety of Mennonite perspectives through Fringe Fest and other productions—but also internationally.
In the 2015 season of Orange is the New Black, one of the inmates had fled a Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing, resulting in future addiction and misfortune. I asked Craddock about the current popularity of these stories.
“I think there’s a curiosity with what life is like and what it’s like to be self-sufficient in these fraught times,” he says. “When our corporations stop bringing food to the door, how are Mennonite farmers going to fare compared with us? I think they’re going to do better, and I think that’s interesting to people right now. Also, we’re soaked in technology all the time, with our wearables, Fitbits, and phones. In such a world it’s increasingly fascinating to think about people who just don’t do that.”
The story centres on the oppression and subsequent liberation through art of two of the family’s daughters, Irma and Aggie. They are bursting with enthusiasm and wonder, but habituated to a life that constrains their curiosity. At its core, an obedience without substance for the entire family, since their mother and father seem to have lost their way but are going through the motions of a strict Mennonite rejection of conventional conformity. No one seems to know why they are doing what they are doing.
“Like a lot of Miriam’s books, it’s based on a secret.” Craddock says. “I think it’s one of her most powerful themes that comes up again and again in her books—that the truth will set you free.”
From this senseless oppression burst the vibrant personalities of Irma and Aggie—funny, shy and eager to experience the world. The play unfolds as the two tell stories, which are supplemented by video projections, and morph into new dramatic scenes as the characters they introduce appear on stage and interact.
The production is lively and immersive, with quick dialogue, music and video, an impressive set and scenes that flow quickly into one another.
The catalyst for Irma’s separation from her family is the arrival of a film crew to make a film about Mennonite farmers. The Spanish-speaking director requires a translator to communicate with a German-speaking Mennonite actress, and Irma is hired to do the job. This experience brings her into contact with people driven by creative expression at all costs, and this transforms her. “There are two themes that intersect in the book and in the play,” Craddock says. “Art is redemptive, soothing and necessary for the human mind to have sanity. And religious extremism kills women, and this needs to be challenged and talked about.”
Thurs., Apr. 20 to Sun., May 7