Toronto
6 min

Poetic permafrost

Secrets exposed in a harsh climate

FEET FIRST. With Snowman at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre, actor and playwright Greg MacArthur leaps into his first-ever mainstage solo writing effort in Toronto; at the same time, he's starring in pppeeeaaaccceee at Theatre Passe Muraille. Credit: Paula Wilson

A man is discovered, frozen, at the edge of a glacier. A gay teen falls in love, an alienated couple struggles to find each other and a repressed archaeologist yearns for liberation. Then the thaw begins.



In Greg MacArthur’s play Snowman, opening Thu, Sep 23 at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre, each of these compelling stories unfolds as inevitably as a glacial tide.



Snowman marks MacArthur’s first mainstage solo writing effort in Toronto, and the results are no less than stunning. Composed in a smooth, poetic style, the script evokes a sense of loneliness and longing that is as startling as it is effective. Moments of real horror make as much an impact as the rich descriptions of the characters’ actions and motivations – these are very real and believable people in extraordinary circumstances.



The discovery of a prehistoric man, entombed in the ice sheet, spears through the hazy indolence of each character’s life, forcing them to confront the pasts they have suppressed within the chilling isolation of their northern environment.



After 10 years of roaming, Denver and Marjorie have settled in a small town at the edge of a glacial sheet. They are eking out an existence, doing odd jobs and renting out purloined videos from their home – avoiding the issues that drove them to escape their previous lives.



They befriend the inscrutable Jude, a gay teen abandoned by his carefree parents. Jude spends many hours with the couple, watching German gay porn and freely sharing his stash of cocaine. “Coke’s easy to get up here,” says Denver. “Can’t get a chunk of feta cheese to save your life, but coke….”



It’s during one of Jude’s many solitary walks on the glacier that he encounters the slowly thawing corpse that is the play’s namesake. Something in the stark loneliness of the body enthralls his imagination, and he enters into an odd but fascinating relationship with his Snowman.



Though he tries to keep its existence secret, word gets out and an archaeologist, Kim, shows up to examine the findings. Kim yearns for a life of anthropological adventure but finds herself, more often than not, up to her elbows in moose carcasses and false leads. The discovery of Jude’s Snowman means a new life for her, both professionally and personally, but leads to unforeseen consequences as her life intersects with the other key players.



With each character metaphorically frozen, the Snowman’s gradual thawing (and decomposing) in the summer sun parallels their own emergence from a state of denial and apathy. It’s a striking journey, made all the more vivid by MacArthur’s stark, gripping, often comic monologues.



“Greg has been able to do something magical with direct address [talking directly to the audience],” says Paul Dunn, who plays Jude. “It’s so alive and it’s so engaging.”



Dunn, who starred in last spring’s Pterodactyls, is a particularly apt choice for the role of Jude; MacArthur wrote the part with him in mind.



“What’s nice about it is that Greg knows me personally,” Dunn says. “A lot of it fits really easily into your rhythms and way of speaking. There’s still a character to find… there’s still a journey, but there are things you can connect with.” Appearing alongside Dunn will be Phillipa Domville, Eric Goulem and Veronika Hurnik (who appeared in an earlier version for Rhubarb).



Although some may initially find the idea of a thawing frozen corpse a tad macabre, MacArthur delves into the allegory with surprisingly poignant results.



“There’s something so horrific about frozen bodies, but there’s something childlike and gentle about them, too,” he says. They’re so shrivelled [but] there’s something so tender about a body in the snow. It all kind of splintered and became an example of where my psyche was, at the time… a bit frozen and stuck, not knowing where I wanted to go, feeling immobile and not being able to access what I wanted.”



MacArthur feels a particular affinity with the frozen land depicted in Snowman, and was able to experience the subarctic environs firsthand earlier this year.



“I got a chance to go up to Whitehorse, to see if I got it right. It’s like this odd party… this mishmash of folks… people from all over the place that ended up in these tiny remote communities. There’s a really strong sense up there that you don’t ask about their past, and they don’t talk about their past as much. People have chosen to be there for a reason.



“It’s a good place to be lost. When you don’t know what you want, it’s a good place to go. You’re sort of stuck with yourself. It’s so majestic.”



He embraces that sense of purposeful transience in his own life, and when his character Marjorie says, “Pick a direction and let’s go,” you can easily imagine MacArthur doing the same. A gypsy spirit at heart, he’s divested himself of most of his belongings and has toyed with the idea of making his own northern sojourn.



“I’ve thought of moving up there, but I’m afraid I’d go crazy, or become an alcoholic or not have sex for three months.



“I feel like I spent the last four years of life paring down, getting rid of things. There’s such a sense of freedom. I hope I have the courage to travel and travel. And I have a trade where I can do that. I hope I don’t settle.”



He looks forward to the possibility of seeing the upcoming production of Snowman in Whitehorse this October. “It’d be interesting to see how the people react to it up there.”



Certainly it will be different from the South African production, which MacArthur attended in Cape Town last year.



“It was the first time I’d heard a script of mine with such a different accent… the Afrikaans accent,” he says. “It was wild to see their interpretation of Canada. They were fascinated by what minus 40 would be like, and were all dying to come to Canada in the winter. You learn a lot about your play that way.”



Toronto audiences have applauded MacArthur’s fine turns in plays like Stem, girls! girls! girls! and Dyke City, but may not realize he is also a creative force behind many of the plays in which he has acted. He’s been nominated for no less than seven Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards in Vancouver, including Outstanding New Play for Snowman.



“I think I’m a better writer than I am performer,” MacArthur says. “I find it a much more torturous life… but I still feel compelled to do it.”



Modesty aside, MacArthur remains much in demand as an actor and will be appearing in Darren O’Donnell’s pppeeeaaaccceee at Theatre Passe Muraille opening Fri, Sep 24. “It’s three people talking to the audience about a revolution that’s happening,” says MacArthur. “It’s left purposefully vague. It’s basically a conversation about politics.”



Pppeeeaaaccceee’s run coincides with Snowman’s, but MacArthur trusts that director David Oiye has things well in hand for his creation. “David’s esthetic is very Zen-like… very clean lines,” he says. “He knows what I like and don’t like.”



This isn’t the first collaboration for the pair; Oiye directed MacArthur’s dangling and Inhale, as well as the earlier Rhubarb production of Snowman.



“I’ve always been a huge fan of Greg’s writing,” says Oiye. “I’ve been calling it urban poetry… it’s a style completely unique. It’s sort of class and gender and ethnic transcendent. I think that is part of its charm; the characters are very recognizable.”



Oiye laughs when remembering their collaboration at 1995’s Shaw Festival – a workshop of MacArthur’s angels and devils. “I refused to let him stay at my apartment,” says Oiye. “I made him pitch a tent in the yard.”



Despite this initial inhospitality, the two have developed a winning rapport. “It’s so great to feel such trust with a director you know,” MacArthur says. “It’s one of those relationships where it’s built up over time… those are usually the best collaborations.”



And he’s no stranger to such relationships. MacArthur is co-artistic director of House Of Slacks, a Toronto-based theatre company, founded with friend and colleague Clinton Walker. Their work together in last April’s production of Stem received solid reviews and an appreciative audience turnout.



Aside from his upcoming role in pppeeeaaaccceee, MacArthur plans to continue to focus on his work crafting stories and characters for the stage.



“What I love about writing for theatre is that you get such an instant response to the work. It’s gratifying to hear silence in the theatre, to hear an audience listening to what you have to say, to your word. It’s thrilling.



“It does make all the lonely months of isolation worth it.”



* Pppeeeaaaccceee runs Fri, Sep 24 to Oct 10 at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Ave); (416) 504-7529.



SNOWMAN.

$17-$19. 8pm. Tue-Sat.

PWYC. 2:30pm. Sun.

Thu, Sep 23-Oct 10.

Buddies In Bad Times Theatre.

12 Alexander St.

(416) 975-8555.