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Riot Diaries

Review by Sean McQuaid

As a left-leaning, bleeding-heart, status-quo-questioning political junkie, your faithful reviewer was either the best or worst possible choice to review Riot Diaries, depending on your perspective; this new play is a collection of character sketches built around the anti-globilization movement in general and the 2001 anti-FTAA protests in particular. Part political statement, part entertainment, Riot Diaries raises intriguing questions and crafts some interesting character.

The show is jointly written, directed, produced and performed by Evan Brown, Dean Constable and Jonathan Stewart. All three are young but experienced fixtures of the Prince Edward Island theatre scene, and all three participated in the anti-FTAA protests in Quebec City (April, 2001). Two of them were also part of an indie film group shooting a documentary about the anti-FTAA riots in Quebec, and footage from that documentary is sprinkled throughout Riot Diaries, augmenting the you-are-there flavour of the show. Film footage both opens and closes Riot Diaries, and also fills in the gaps between the many monologues as Brown, Constable and Stewart take turns portraying a variety of characters associated with the riots.

Brown, an intelligent and innovative writer made somewhat infamous by his own protest activities (planting a pie in the face of Prime Minister Jean Chretien), plays a rogue protester and a suit-and-tie consultant. The characters have potential, but Brown barrels through his lines with a continuous-stream recitation style bordering on the auctioneeresque, rendering his text largely devoid of nuance and forcing your hapless reviewer to coin the word "auctioneeresque."

Stewart, a precociously prolific jack-of-all-theatrical-trades best known as the founder of the Left Hand Theatre group, fares somewhat better. His characters (a journalist and a libertarian idealist) and his portrayals of those characters are uniquely quirky, amusing and animated, easily the most entertaining and endearing portions of the show. The sometimes-hesitant Constable is a similarly solid though more conventional performer in his roles as a policeman and a young legal advisor; he is more convincing as the latter than the former, and his turn as the legal advisor (which earned him a best supporting actor award in the recent PEI Theatre Festival) is the most naturalistic bit of acting in the show.

The show is technically sound for the most part-lighting, music and film clips unfold as they should, though there are puzzlements and disappointments by times. Stewart's libertarian monologues, for instance, are delivered into a video camera, and this material would be greatly enhanced if (as Theatre Festival adjudicators suggested) the directors could somehow hook up Stewart's video camera to the show's projection screen; also, Stewart seems torn between roaming the stage and remaining attentive to the video camera-if nothing else, a more central location for the camera (which is off to one side) might have helped.

The video clips in general are often illuminating (offering a variety of perspectives on political protest) and sometimes amusing (the film crew asking the riot squad for directions is a hoot); but like the show in general, the clips sometimes seem to lack a sense of organization or purpose, and some of the footage smacks of filler (the "boogie shoes" material eats up a lot of time but adds little value, for instance).

Riot Diaries is a valiant attempt at chronicling and defining the modern protest culture, tackling a very timely, very important topic in a very intelligent fashion; the show still looks and sounds a bit like a jumbled work in progress, but this may be both fitting and inevitable, given the chaotic and inscrutable nature of its subject matter. At the very least, there's a spark of something here, and it generates more light than heat.

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