Review – the Arts Club Theatre’s The Unplugging
– by Stephanie MacDonald
As I try to do with all brand-new material for the stage, I thought I was going in to see The Unplugging with an open mind. Oh yes, just a diverting little yarn about two middle-aged aboriginal women, cruelly banished from their community, desperately trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic Northern landscape sometime in the vague, not-too-distant-future. Fun!
I had an idea that it would probably be enlightening, and an overall good experience (this is the Arts Club, after all), but you can be sure that I had a couple of fortifying glasses of wine before I sat down to what would obviously be a long 90 minutes, after which I would emerge a better, more understanding, culturally educated person.
It’s really quite embarrassing to write those words now. Yvette Nolan’s The Unplugging is so funny, smart, and nuanced that my preconceptions seem pretty antiquated. In our world, where all information seems to be at your fingertips, most relationships are digital. Communities consist of separate individuals from all over the world connecting over the Internet–electricity powers modern life.
When the electricity is gone, so is life as we know it, and so is all the accumulated knowledge that we are used to accessing so easily. At its heart, The Unplugging is a philosophical look at the way culture has always predicated human survival, and about how the new ways we use and access knowledge ultimately undermine our culture and threaten our existence. Heavy, I know.
But the weird thing is, that right from the start, Nolan’s play refuses to capitulate to any of your theatrical expectations regarding issues surrounding the apocalypse, First Nations, alienation, the North, or middle-aged women. All of these subjects can, and have, supported entire oeuvres (The Road, The Thing, and Shirley Valentine to name just a few), but as the two main characters trudge across a frozen and deserted landscape, near total collapse, and you find yourself laughing under your breath, you think there must be something wrong with you.
But the women find an abandoned settlement, settle down and get to work surviving on sheer determination and the memories of the way their elders lived when they were growing up. Quite apart from any real possessions or stockpiles of food, it is this knowledge that allows them to get back on their feet and value themselves as capable and strong, while laughing at themselves along the way. Then, of course a stranger shakes things up in a way I won’t spoil for you.
It’s by no means a flawless work. While the acting is good, we don’t really get enough background on the two women to fully realize the juxtaposition of their old life to this new one. The set is very spare and doesn’t really capture the cozy essence of their new surroundings. But while it is uncomfortable to ask yourself, “Why did I have such reservations about how entertaining this would be?” (maybe that’s the cultural education part), the end result is an almost lighthearted study about how sharing and passing on knowledge between human beings makes us what we are. And we shouldn’t leave something as important as that all in one electronic basket.
The Unplugging is on at the Revue Stage on Granville Island until Nov 3.