Who would have thought a play about canola, corn, soybeans and wheat could be so, uhm, damned entertaining and thought provoking. Seeds, Annabel Soutar's docudrama at the Centaur until Nov. 24 is all about the perceived evils of Monsanto Inc., the international bio-tech seed monopoly, and the meaning of life.
It is a complex, fast paced, three-hour experience which examines the “unintended consequences of genetically modified seeds.” The Montreal playwright injects herself into the script as a character to tell the story of a Saskatchewan farmer and Liberal MLA, Percy Schmeiser who raged against the Monsanto machine in a celebrated court battle. Her play raises the question: where do farmer’s right begin and Monsanto’s rights end. In 1997, Schmeiser, discovered genetically modified canola plans growing in his field near Bruno, Saskatchewan, which he had sprayed with poison, only to discover the plants survived.
Curious as to why, he saved the seeds and planted them the following year. Monsanto then sued him for using patented technology without paying the multinational company a license fee. Schmeiser believed that farmers have a right to use their own farm bred and farmer saved seeds and fought back saying. “We have a right to know what we are eating.”
He took the case to the Supreme Court. In a landmark decision four years ago he lost. But he won a moral victory when the court ruled he did not have to pay the substantial legal fees and damages because he had not profited from his canola growing venture. Seeds is in part a court-room drama. Everything on stage is verbatim, based on court transcripts and interviews that Soutar conducted. Sometimes it is hard to keep track of the huge cast of almost 40 characters: various plant seed biologists, weed biologists, corporate lawyers, farmhands and political activists. But Siminovitch award-winning director Chris Abraham has put it all together with rat-a-tat precision. His cinematic vision is inseparable from the work of three superlative designers: Julie Fox, who did the set and costumes, Anna Cappelluto’s lighting and sound designer Richard Feren. The production makes effective use of a horizontal stage-wide scene-shifting television monitor above a multi-purpose laboratory. Eric Peterson gives an exemplary performance as Schmeiser, the indignant, passionate, sometimes bewildered prairie farmer with a spine of steel. Peterson is one of those rare performers who can command attention just by rifling through a stack of papers on a lectern without saying a word. Cary Lawrence as the always reassuring public relations voice of Monsanto brings an icy corporate chill to her principle character. Lisa Repo-Martell as Soutar, the crusading playwright, infuses her character with an understandable pamphleteering tone. Alex Ivanovici does a fine job as Schmeiser’s lawyer, and Tanja Jacobs shines in a cameo role as a crusading nun. The actors all take turns playing other characters, mere pawns in roles which are there to drive the narrative forward. One brief comic scene in India, however, comes perilously close to racial stereotyping. Near the end of the play, when asked why he pressed his case, Schmeiser says with a startling nonchalance: “It was their (Monsanto’s) opinion, and my opinion was different.” What makes the line so startling is that it serves as a sharp warning to a complacent public. Are transgeneric seeds, round-up ready crops and the increased yield worth the detrimental side effects, both social and agricultural? It is a question that has not yet been answered to everyone’s satisfaction. Seeds is a perceptive work of theatre that is not only adds to the debate over multinational control, but could serve as a valuable contribution to public policy.