Unsafe at Berkeley Stage


A new play commissioned by the Canadian Stage Company

Written and created by Sook-Yin Lee

Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley

Performed by Sook-Yin Lee and Christo Graham

Set design by Christine Urquhart

Lighting design by Steve Lucas

Video designer Roxanne Luck

Costume design by Ming Wong

Sound design by Ali Berkok


Before the opening night curtain rose on Unsafe, Brendan Healy, the newly appointed artistic director of the Canadian Stage Company, stepped forward and gave greetings and traditional acknowledgements to the People of the First Nations. He stood amiably at floor level in front of the stage and made his remarks before returning to his seat. As he sat down it was difficult to tell whether he was settling in to witness a newly commissioned play or to partake in a roast of the institution that he has only just begun to lead.

Such are the difficult twists, turns and meanderings of Sook-Yin Lee’s videographic and live stage bio play, Unsafe, now at Berkeley Street Theatre. Unsafe is a big close up on the playwright’s professional and personal trials, tribulations and successes over the years, and it sometimes is hard to tell who she is pointing the finger at – including, sometimes, herself.

Matthew Jocelyn, the recently departed artistic director of Canadian Stage, whose troubled tenure left the theatre with a 1 million dollar plus deficit, is the first to get a drubbing. Lee’s video interview with Jocelyn tends to pick at the scab a bit, highlighting some of the rockier moments of his time as artistic director which included programming responsibilities and commissioning new work to fill the Bluma Appel Theatre on Front Street as well as the two spaces on Berkeley Street.

At one point, Lee asks Jocelyn point blank what he thinks about the accusations brought against CanStage by entertainment lawyer, Derrick Chua, in his #canstage-so-white campaign. In a jaw-dropping response, Jocelyn calls it “reverse colonialism”, which elicited a collective, sharp gasp from the opening night crowd that included many people from the theatre community. His tone deaf response to the question is symptomatic of his failure to grasp the evolving values and expectations within the arts community as a whole that plagued his appointment.

The playwright, having established her main beef with Canadian Stage and the demands placed upon her creatively, which included the circuitous route the commissioning of Unsafe went through in its early gestation, then goes on to castigate others, most notably the CBC, for also treating her unfairly. 

After being the on-air host of the CBC radio program, “This Is Not the Opera”, for over ten years, the show was cancelled, leaving her without one major stream of financial support. Lee attributed her firing to her celebrated appearance in the 2006 erotic film, Shortbus, as well as getting caught up (unfairly) in l’affaire Ghomeshi for which she was also criticized by management at the Corpse. 

Peripheral and sadly under interrogated side issues include: artistic censorship and child pornography (the original focus of Matthew Jocelyn’s commission to playwright Jordan Tannahill who later withdrew from the project entirely); deaf, differently abled, and mad activism in the arts; and job security within an area of work that actor R.H. Thomson once described as “a blood sport”. 

Sook-Yin Lee’s public persona as a performance artist, media personality and actor is in evidence throughout the evening. As an actor, I found her compelling both in her own play here and in television projects such as the Jack Layton biography in which she portrayed Olivia Chow. Sarah Barton Stanley directed this production with flare and an obviously firm grasp on the need to pace both real time actors as well as integrated video clips. She was aided in this multi media endeavor by lighting designer Steve Lucas, video designer Roxanne Luck and sound designer Ali Berkok.

But it was the strong cast of supporting players (both live and on tape) who really get your attention. Christo Graham anchors the show in many ways as Sook-Yin Lee’s right and left hand (and sometimes headless) man. Graham plays the role of Zack Russell, the second playwright that Jocelyn approached after Tannahill withdrew. He is a talented actor as well as a pianist whose skills in that area were underutilized, I felt. Nonetheless, as Lee’s supporter one moment and foil the next, he acts as the repressed id to her liberated ego throughout. 

Matthew Jocelyn (as himself on video) reveals a thin skinned and somewhat arrogant personality that many people were glad to see the back of. The Globe and Mail arts critic and novelist, Kate Taylor (in a difficult to hear video segment) gives an insight into the responsibilities of arts journalists when dealing with difficult subjects like child pornography. The Anglican priest and poet, Maggie Helwig (also on video) provides an extended exegesis on art, literature and the soul.

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