Verbatim theatre is a style in which plays are crafted and structured around precise words from interviews about specific events. Depending on the events structured, and the quality of the interview, an audience may be witness to a compelling night of theatre. They may also be witness to something that feels akin to a teacher’s slide show of their boring family vacation. Luckily, Col Cseke’s live documentary play, Parts & Labour, mostly falls into the former category. Presented by Fieldwork, the material is an engaging look at the hardships faced by immigrants in the Canadian Temporary Foreign Workers program.
Cseke, who has spent the better part of eight years interviewing people throughout the meat-packing plants of Brooks and High River, constructs his play around these communities. He’s done due diligence capturing the plight of workers caught in a hostile system. In addition, he’s captured the reactions of the outer community that bears witness to so many new immigrants in town. There’s the worker from Mexico whose back injury creates conflict with his supervisor. There’s the Filipino philosophy student caught in a horrid assembly line of “sticking” over two-thousand cows a day. There’s also the Canadian couple whom Cseke interviews – they have a very firm opinion on what it means to be “a good Canadian.” Finally, there’s the suffering that happens with people who are forced to live on top of each other while a pandemic is underway.
One of the compelling conceits of this production is that Cseke interviews in real-time, a special guest, an immigrant new to Canada. On my viewing, Cseke interviewed a Nigerian woman named Mary who formally lived in London and now resides in Canada. The interview unearths some of the problems and complexities of trying to immigrate to a new destination. This is a fascinating choice as the audience is met with performers playing real people, acting out real dialogue, while a real interview with a real person also takes place. Wrap your meta-head around that.
Mieko Ouchi directs with an unobtrusive touch. She is especially deft at creating a stage picture that harnesses the performances while Cseke’s live interview takes place. Actors Mike Tan, Meg Farhall, Isabella Pederson, and Rico Pisco are terrific. They show much versatility and range, doubling, tripling, and quadrupling roles in various accents. There’s much empathy found in these performances.
There are a few issues, however, that keep this play from reaching its full potential. Cseke has certainly gone above and beyond in gathering, consolidating, and curating his material. But some of what he’s attempting feels unwieldy. For instance, Mary the special guest is not a Temporary Foreign Worker. She’s an immigrant but, she’s not a victim of the hardships we see in Brooks and High River. That’s not to downplay her struggles, but this is very different than what is going on with what feels criminal in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. In conflating two different issues, the piece loses its focus. Presumably, at future dates, Cseke will interview special guests that have been in the Temporary Foreign Worker program. Because it’s such a large structural component of the show, it’s worth mentioning.
Then there’s the issue of the ending, which turns into a Sondheim-like musical number. Because so much of the play stresses real people and real situations, the choice to include this doesn’t feel quite right. It doesn’t fit what has come before. We’ve been promised reality. A musical number, no matter how good (and it is good), doesn’t fit this world.
Though the play is certainly engaging, Cseke needs to go back to his material and find a way to find the right conclusion to what is an otherwise exceptional night of theatre and investigative reporting.
Parts & Labour plays July 1st-9th at the West Village Theatre. Running time: 2hrs, 15 minutes with intermission.