Winnipeg is an interesting city. It’s got multiple personalities that change on a street by street basis, and, for a city of 700,000 people, everyone seems to know each other.
But there’s many invisible dividing lines within Winnipeg’s perimeter. Some lines are fortified by cultural and economic differences, and others are created entirely by perception.
Much of the city North of Portage Avenue is seen as an unsavoury urban oasis by people living outside its boundaries — save for a few slowly gentrifying pockets. This negative perception is reconfirmed in newscast after newscast that only seem to cover the violence and crime that occur in the area.
On Tuesday I saw a play called Sargent & Victor & Me, a one-woman show about a troubled Winnipeg neighbourhood as told by the people who live there. Debbie Patterson, writer and star, wrote the play based on interviews she had with residents of the area, and their interactions with a food bank on the corner of Sargent and Victor Avenue.
Patterson is dealing with multiple sclerosis and at first intended to leave her disease out of the script. Her MS later became the connecting piece between the main character Gillian and the rest of the characters.
What I liked about the play was Patterson’s honest dialogue about MS. During the opening scene she calls out her leg that has stopped working properly and includes the audience as she puts on the leg brace that she wears for the rest of the play. Patterson puts all of her issues on display with Gillian and talks candidly about her frustrations living with an untreatable disease.
I also enjoyed the set because it allowed Patterson to be in motion while she transitioned from character to character. The stage was filled with objects that made the set perfect for her to navigate. At times Patterson was able to hide her limp when playing different characters by sitting on the floor, on a table or in a chair.
Patterson did an amazing job of becoming Theresa, a 15 year old gang member who quickly became my favourite character. Theresa’s unbelievable story was even more compelling because Patterson captured all of her subject’s mannerisms.
Unfortunately what didn’t work was the amount of characters and the lack of definition between most of them. Patterson shoehorned eight characters into the hour and a half long play, with most only differentiated by lighting and vocal inflections. This detracted from the production because it became hard to follow the story lines.
A slightly strange comparison I made while watching the play was with Rick Miller’s MacHomer, a twist on Shakespeare’s Macbeth that is played out with characters from The Simpsons. Weird, I know, but it’s the only other one-person play I’ve seen. Miller also has to navigate through many characters but he does so more successfully than Patterson because his characters are established pop culture icons with distinct voices.
That comparison might seem like I’m trivializing Patterson’s play, but it’s just a point of reference. I recognized she had the arduous task of engaging the audience with a list of characters that many people hadn’t encountered before. I know I was surprised by the unintentional racism that came out of one of the older characters in the play. But I appreciate that she didn’t censor any of her subjects.
In my mind Patterson succeeded in creating a play that explored a multifaceted neighbourhood, but I would have enjoyed it more if it had been more focused.