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N for Native, A for American, D-minus for drama

1.5 out of 4 stars

After years of being largely neglected by local theatre artists, Eugene O'Neill is enjoying a brief spell as the most popular playwright in Toronto.

With his posthumously produced plays Hughie and Long Day's Journey Into Night still running, Native Earth Performing Arts is now premiering an adaptation of O'Neill's 1924 Desire Under the Elms, written by their new artistic director Tara Beagan. (It's actually the final play programmed under former artistic director Yvette Nolan.)

In older books, you might see Desire Under the Elms described as one of the first attempts at writing a "native American tragedy."

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In the original – itself loosely based on the Greek myth of Phaedra and her stepson Hippolytus – oppressive patriarch Ephraim Cabot brings a young wife, Abbie, home to his New England farm.

There, Abbie ends up in a semi-incestuous love affair with Ephraim's youngest son, Eben, who takes up with her partly to avenge his late "Maw." Eben believes his father stole the farm from his mother and then worked her to death.

In Beagan's adaptation, titled Free as Injuns, O'Neill's strange stew of Greek tragedy and American Gothic is recast as a Native American tragedy – capital N, capital A – this time around. She imagines the battle over the Cabot farm as a metaphor for the one over land taken from aboriginal peoples by European settlers. (In the original, Ephraim does indeed boast of killing and scalping "Injuns" in a pathetic attempt to prove his virility.)

Eben and Abbie here become Even (James Cade) and Be (PJ Prudat), and they both have aboriginal blood in them.

As for Even's two brothers from other mothers, Sim (John Ng) and Peter (Ash Knight) are also mixed-race – which provides an explanation for why the tyrannical, religious Ephraim treats them so poorly.

In O'Neill's play, Sim and Peter run off to join the California gold rush early on. In Beagan's, they stick around, but aren't given much more to do and so simply aimlessly roam Andy Moro's striking set – a couple of catwalks that bridge a dirt-filled pit.

There's definitely sizzle between Cade and Prudat as Even and Be; the seduction scenes are the high points of Free as Injuns. Jerry Franken's weak Cabot, however, helps to explain why we generally don't see too much O'Neill in these parts. There just aren't the Canadian alpha-male actors to play the cruel and competitive fathers convincingly.

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Beagan's script is impressive in one respect – it manages to top O'Neill in overblown wordiness. Her dialogue's a mix of clipped sentences reminiscent of the dialect O'Neill's used, along with passages that aim for poetry, and lines that are modern-sounding and peppered with profanity. No strong convention is ever established, and the result is a watery play with no sense of period, place or even season.

Director Ruth Madoc-Jones's soupy production doesn't do much to bring the sprawling text under control. Verne Good's sound design is simply inconsistent – Even's dead mother speaks in voiceover, but so does an unseen living character; recorded sounds match mimed actions in some scenes, but not others.

Another bizarre element is a love scene that sees Prudat's Be topless for a long stretch. It seems odd to insist on nudity for so long, but strictly above the belt. The result reads as both gratuitous and prudish.

On the whole, Beagan's version simply makes you yearn to see a production of Desire Under the Elms – which, I imagine, few Toronto audience members have. This is just another failed attempt to graft new concerns onto a old play that can't bear the weight.

Free as Injuns

  • Written by Tara Beagan
  • Directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones
  • Starring James Cade, PJ Prudat
  • A Native Earth Performing Arts production
  • At Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto

Free as Injuns runs until March 18 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St., Toronto.

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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