Getting a play from page to stage involves a complex process of communication among the many people involved. When it comes to getting what she wants from her company of actors, designers and technicians, director Jennifer Tarver takes a page from her 16-month-old son, Jack.
“He’s just starting to talk, but he’s very good at letting us know what he wants,” she laughs. “Even without words, he’s very clear when he needs something. I’m actually in the doghouse with him a bit right now because I’m away from home so much.”
Though Tarver would clearly like more quality time with her wife and their son, her hectic schedule has kept her on the road for much of the last year. In addition to directing the world premiere of George F Walker’s King of Thieves at the Stratford Festival, her production of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape with veteran actor Brian Dennehy, which was mounted at the festival in 2008, went on to play in Chicago and New York.
Now Tarver is directing the Canadian Stage production of Scottish playwright David Greig’s The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union. Penned in 1999, the unwieldily titled show tells multiple intersecting stories of people trying and failing to communicate with each other.
Inspired in part by the true story of Sergei Krikalev, a cosmonaut stuck on the Mir space station for months during the collapse of the Soviet Union, the play opens on a space craft orbiting earth. Oleg (Tom Barnett) and Casimir (Tony Nappo) have been sent into space only to be abandoned after their republic crumbles. Despite being unable to communicate with those back home and having only each other for company, the two can barely carry on a conversation. Down below, Edinburgh couple Keith (David Jansen) and Vivienne (Fiona Byrne) are similarly isolated as they sit in front of their broken television, unable to talk about their failing marriage. Perpetually believing that the grass is always greener, Keith has taken up an affair with Nastasja (Sarah Wilson), a young Russian émigré constantly seeking to turn her fantasies into reality. The complex, interwoven plot features six additional characters, all with their own struggles to hear and be understood.
Though Tarver had never read the play before being approached by Canadian Stage artistic director Matthew Jocelyn to direct it, she was immediately moved by it.
“I found the overall theme quite arresting,” she says. “The piece examines how challenging it can be for people to communicate with each other. But it also suggests that, regardless of someone’s ability to communicate, messages can find their own way.”
The complexity of the script makes it a challenge to mount, even for a veteran like Tarver.
“Greig left it open how to translate the play to a stage space,” she says. “It’s a very complex piece in certain ways, with 45 scenes that span numerous locations. The edits between scenes are so fast it’s a bit like translating a film script to the stage.”
Despite approaching the show with what she describes as a “minimalist aesthetic,” Tarver’s technically complex production involves both flying set pieces and flying actors, in combination with video projections and a revolving stage. Central to bringing the elements together into a cohesive whole is her relationship with her technical team.
“One of the most important elements of communicating within a company is choosing collaborators that you have an open line with,” she says. “It’s like any other relationship. You’re with your partner because you’re able to communicate on a level that is meaningful to you.”