By Caleigh Crow
Invasive Species is a story told by Junior, a tall, confident man in a white suit, who is trying to protect America from a scourge of cane toads that he feels have utterly infested his most beloved homeland. He’s on a train headed to his Floridian hometown to meet Big Bertha, the biggest baddest cane toad around, mother to the entire species, and malefactor of Junior’s personal tragedy. It seems like a noble enough cause until it’s revealed that Junior’s method of protecting America from cane toads involves a lot (a LOT) of highly addictive and deadly hallucinogens, a power drill, and good old-fashioned blood-lust. It’s an ecological thriller-horror story and powerful satirical statement on anti-immigration rhetoric rolled into one sweaty, furious, swampy fireball performance.
The play is written and performed by Gabriel Schultz, who is bringing the show back after a successful run at this year’s St Ambroise Montreal FRINGE Festival where it won the Frankie Award for Making Big Things Happen in Small Places, so it’s only fitting that the remount of the show will run at the Freestanding Room this week.
“The audience thinks they’re sitting on board a train with this southern gentleman, but then Junior starts ranting about America’s most dangerous illegal residents,” Gabriel says with a laugh, “and I remember feeling people in the audience reeling until he says it’s the cane toad. There’s a bit of a sigh of relief.” Invasive Species raises important questions about who we consider the ‘other’ and how reactionary movements can divert valuable energy and resources from alleviating structural inequalities. “Junior has been completely ripped off by the system, for lack of a better term, but he’s taking it out on the wrong people. He’s been destroyed by so many different things, but his energy is focused in the wrong place,” Gabriel explains.
Gabriel first wrote the show for a playwrighting course at Concordia University, who had a yen to combine his passion for biology and conservation, his one-time career of choice, with theatre. “I’ve always wanted to create that show,” he says, “but I also wanted it to be a show that would absorb the political climate of North America today.”
The play is firmly situated in the American South, with Gabriel performing with the appropriate accent. “I love the good parts of the American south, not just the good geographic points, though I think there is a lot of beauty there,” Gabriel says. “I knew that I wanted to play with a specific language and cadence because the fury that comes out of Southern people is scary but it’s very musical at the same time.” What comes to mind is the righteous anger of the Southern televangelist preacher, or champion of justice Martin Luther King Jr at his most fervent. Gabriel also credits the Southern states for their storytelling abilities, saying the art form is “really embraced in that part of the world.” He continues, “Whether it’s a light fairy tale or a raging revenge story it’s always going to come out musical and powerful.”
The production is moving from their FRINGE venue, which Gabriel describes as “coffee-table” sized, to the Freestanding Room. While the new venue is certainly bigger than a piece of living room furniture, it is still categorically (and affectionately) intimate. I glean from Gabriel that the result will be to have the audience members more immersed in the show – though it isn’t an immersive piece of theatre. “There will be space for me to move around and feel as if the audience are sitting on the train rather than sitting in the theatre watching a man on a train,” Gabriel predicts, and mentions a few other challenges of staging the show in yet another small space. “I think we can embrace that,” assures Gabriel, optimistically, “The functions of the play are very topsy-turvy. What’s interesting about the space is absorbing the challenges and putting it into the environment that comes out of Invasive Species.”
I want to leave you with my favourite thought from Gabriel, describing Junior, but also is an apt summation of Invasive Species: “He really embodies how I see that part of the world, which is a very sympathetic and beautiful place, but it can be disgusting and scary at the same time, and all of it clumped together in a weird sweaty seven-layer cake.”
Invasive Species runs from November 16 – 25 at the Freestanding Room. For more information and ticketing details please click here.