I Dream of Diesel — the new made-in-Manitoba multi-media show seeing its world premiere this week through Theatre Projects Manitoba, working in collaboration with indie company One Trunk Theatre — has a lot going for it.
It's based on songs by acclaimed local tunesmith Scott Nolan and was co-created by a talented local trio: Gwendolyn Collins, Andraea Sartison and Claire Therese. The show is backed by projections designed by the always sharp-eyed Hugh Conacher and features a solid local cast.
It shouldn't be much of a surprise that the production has captured plenty of moments that work marvelously.
It is a bit surprising that it sometimes doesn't feel like they quite stitch together into more than the sum of their parts.
Andraea Sartison, who also takes on directing duties, calls the collectively-created play "a love story about our relationship with the land." And it's certainly got a very prairie feel.
Diesel follows Joe (Justin Otto), a long-haul trucker, as he falls for Sylvia (Claire Therese), the waitress at his favourite diner. They both have their own dreams and leave the diner in their dust to pursue them.
But when they get back to the family farm where Joe grew up, those dreams collide with reality, with some unexpected results.
It's a timeless, if not a terribly complicated, story — and one of the knocks against Diesel is that it relies on a few too many clichés (the story of the burden of the family farm, for example, is one we've heard often).
And its characters have the feeling of people mentioned in passing in a song — but not quite fleshed out enough for the stage.
On the other hand, Diesel tells their story beautifully.
It's a stylistic treat, and Sartison gives the production lots of delightfully clever directorial touches.
A clothesline, for example, becomes a conveyance for postcards between Sylvia and Joe.
Umbrellas affixed to that same clothesline turn into a trio of screens for video projections.
There's a wordless montage of scenes from the farm that's a great bit of physical comedy. The show continually offers visual surprise.
Conacher's video projections, of everything from the diner parking lot to golden prairie fields, are shot with the beauty of an art house film. If you're a Manitoban, it's impossible not to look at his backdrop of a snowy farm field and feel that twinge that says "home."
And Nolan's music, hauntingly spare, is woven smartly through and around the scenes of the play.
It's all given fine performances by the five-person cast (rounded out by Gwendolyn Collins, Arne MacPherson and Karl Thordarson). Though the characters aren't quite as rich as I might've liked, they're all given a believable grounding.
Although it feels like it meanders in finding its through line, it reaches a thoughtful, resonant ending — like a big rig, it gets where it needs to eventually.
It takes some time to get up to speed, and there's the feeling this would be a more consistently compelling piece if its 100-minute run time was pared down.
For all of that, I still enjoyed — and recommend — I Dream of Diesel, in part because it's a tremendously ambitious effort.
It's a collective creation, shared by two theatre companies, two years in the making. It mixes music, video and physical theatre with more traditional theatrical storytelling in a creative blend we don't often see.
It also showcases rising local talent, and bringing new, local work to the stage is always laudable. It's worth noting, too, this is the only new Manitoban play to see a professional production this season.
So maybe I Dream of Diesel really is the ultimate love letter to our Prairie province. It doesn't fully realize its remarkable potential but it dreams big — and has plenty of moments of real beauty.
I Dream of Diesel runs until April 19 at the Rachel Browne Theatre.