A Soldier's Story - giving the devil his due

A Soldier's Story

In 1918 Igor Stravinsky wrote a music theatre piece "to be read, played, and danced". The libretto, which is based on a Russian folk tale, was written in French by the Swiss universalist writer C.F. Ramuz. It is a parable about a soldier on leave, who trades his fiddle to the Devil for a book that predicts the future of the economy, a moral tale of greed and punishment.

Due to the lack of resources available following World War I, the piece was written for a small ensemble of seven musicians and four performers with minimal production costs. How fitting that Flaming Mambie Productions should decide to put it on for the SummerWorks festival, since lack of resources is always an accepted issue. I interviewed producer/performer Vanessa AvRuskin after watching their opening night performance. The impetus for doing the piece began with a one night reading put on by ArtFarm (a small group of musicians with a mandate of bringing classical music and arts to a broader audience), with AvRuskin playing all the characters. They were so thrilled at the end of the night that they wanted to do it again. Enter SummerWorks. So began a three-month collaborative rehearsal process of blending music, theatre and dance.

The resulting performance combined live music, storytelling, pantomime and dance. Seven musicians were positioned at the back of the stage, with three performers in front. At times this was distracting, since the musicians naturally shifted in their seats. Yet it was charming since they obviously enjoyed watching the animated performance. AvRuskin played the narrator (as well as other characters), with a straightforward frank approach. Christopher Sawchyn, who played the Devil, wowed with his dancing. Colin Doyle was charismatic and engaging as the soldier. The libretto is mainly written in rhyming couplets, which at times feels predictable while at other times is extremely satisfying. Such is the fate of the form. AvRuskin said they worked long and hard at deciding when to emphasize or minimize the rhyme in the text.

The orchestral ensemble was top notch, tackling an extremely challenging score. Even the conductor (Eric Paetkau) played a speaking role, which had a very clever and amusing effect. Two of the musicians also stepped up to play silent pals of the Devil. It made me long for more integration between musicians and actors, which AvRuskin says they would have done with more time and resources. Some of the most stunning moments came in the spaces between the narration, with beautiful bits of modern dance and hilarious pantomime. During these musical interludes Sawchyn and AvRuskin played a smorgasbord of colourful characters interacting with the soldier. There is a powerful dance between the Devil and soldier in an ultimate card game, where the soldier is purposely trying to lose to get out from under the Devil’s thumb. The one relationship that lacked passion was between the soldier and his love-interest, the princess, playfully acted by AvRuskin. This made the show lose a bit of its drive as I was never convinced they were blissfully in love and happy. Nevertheless, director Anita La Selva and the performers created evocative physical images and creative theatrical moments. They used bodies as props and the back curtain to delightfully frame the face of the Devil. The actors were perfectly synchronized in movement and able to switch styles of dance and storytelling effortlessly. Hard work pays off, the ensemble were utterly committed and gave impressive energy and grace to the performance.

La Selva and AvRuskin made the choice to make the piece timeless and without place, rather than paralleling it with any current wars or conflicts.

”We wanted the show to be a universal experience,” explained AvRuskin. “It had so much potential to be about whatever war and personal experience that you have, allowing you to connect, so we didn’t want to impose. When people see the story, they can have an individual experience.”

The result is that the ensemble provides a blank canvas onto which the audience projects their own past follies. This was perhaps the strength and weakness of the show. The moral message of the libretto is written with the occasional ‘hit over the head with a hammer’ directness. As you sit in the audience you can’t help but view the show searching for modern metaphors. The performers are dressed in funky costumes, mainly black except for the soldier, but they read as contemporary design. The translated libretto (by Jeremy Sams) they chose used both formal and modern language. The performance had a freedom and creativity that matches the innovation of the composer, as this piece was considered very wild for its time. In 1918 A Soldier’s Story was indeed topical, Europe was still in the throes of the mechanized carnage of World War I. In 2008, void of place and time, the overall message and impact delivered by the creators comes across as somewhat vague and oblique.

My hunch is that with more time this talented team of artists could make this production stellar. My recommendation is to go see it for yourself; it’s ambitious and expertly performed by all, and well worth the ten bucks.

A Soldier's Story (L'Histoire du Soldat),adapted from a Russian fable; Directed by Anita La Selva; Presented by Flaming Mamie Productions; Featuring Vanessa AvRuskin, Christopher Sawchyn, Colin Doyle. Part of the 2008 SummerWorks Festival. For showtimes, please go here.

By Anna Chatterton