By Normand Chaurette
Screaming Flea Theatre
SFU Harbour Centre
515 W. Hastings
Room 2270
August 4-13

An engineering project testing new technology for water purification in the Third World goes dreadfully wrong. Machinery breaks down, the weather is catastrophic, and chief engineer Toni van Saikin dies.

Quebec playwright Normand Chaurette’s Fragments of a Farewell Letter Read by Geologists, translated by Linda Gaboriau, stages an inquiry into the failure of the project and the death of van Saikin. Four geologists, another engineer and the dead man’s wife testify before the inquiry’s skeptical, probing chairman. Conflicting testimonies and mysterious motives swirl around the enigmatic figure of van Saikin and the few oblique sentences salvaged from a letter he wrote just before his death.

If this story were pitched in Hollywood, it might be tagged Rashomon meets Heart of Darkness, or CSI: Cambodia. But Chaurette’s play deliberately avoids action and melodramatics. The characters are essentially talking heads, sitting in a conference room asking and answering questions, meditating on the mystery. Mallory Catlett’s Screaming Flea Theatre production adds another dimension of anti-theatricality by staging the play in a classroom at SFU downtown.

At nearly two hours without intermission, this cerebral talkfest makes serious demands on its audience.

Each geologist testifies from a slightly different angle about how van Saikin moved the project from Sudan’s Blue Nile to Cambodia’s Mekong River, how they were dogged by bureaucratic delays, technological failure, toxic tropical creatures and torrential rains. Each attempts to interpret the fragments of the letter and to account for the man and his death. The consensus is that “he decided to die,” though why or how is never established. Behind them, projections of the two rivers and an ambiguous group photo go in and out of focus as what seems clear about the story becomes increasingly dubious.

When the Chairman (David Bloom) starts picking holes in their accounts and even suggests that one of them might have killed van Saikin, the geologists become defensive and strange, speaking in stylized chorus or suddenly freezing in place.

Late in the play van Saikin’s widow (Heather Lindsay) addresses a long monologue to fragments of his bones in a box, and the Asian engineer (Ronin Wong) who arrived after the death offers his mystical perspective.

What does it all add up to? Some strong acting, particularly from Bloom as the Chair, Derek Whidden and Paul Ribeiro as two of the engineers, and Wong, whose elegant performance made me wonder why I haven’t seen this guy on a local stage for years. But are these performances and the mysteries they reveal and conceal sufficiently compelling to overcome the static, measured, austere quality of the theatrical experience?

I could give you my answer, but it would be just one fragment of the truth buried in the mud of subjectivity beneath the murky waters of consciousness.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Wednesday, August 10, 2005 2:22 PM
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