Review: 'How the World Began' at the Fire Exit Theatre

Vicki Trask

OnStage Calgary Critic

Especially at a time when there is so much uncertainty in the outside world, we need excellent theatre to either distract us or make us think. A delicate balance of both is important and “How the World Began” fills the quotient of thought-provoking theatre. Fire Exit Theatre’s newest production at the Engineered Air Theatre follows Susan, a pregnant science teacher, new to a small town, butting heads with Micah, a student with a strong belief in religion over science. The two of them verbally dance around each other, taking the leads on a very complicated issue, while Micah’s guardian Gene acts as an unreliable and ignorant mediator.  The trio offer a snapshot on small town life in an age of resistant progression and miscommunication.

I want to start with playwright Catherine Trieschmann’s story. I can’t speak to her experiences or her perspective but I can speak to my own and the experiences of the people in my life. This play is very deliberately set in a rural area with a “small town” mentality. It’s an essential part of the story and so when details about living in that town are vague or even wrong it breathes a lack of believability into the plot at hand. Minor details don’t break the story – the subject matter is far more important than the setting – but I just wonder how much of those minor details came from research or experience. 

The subject matter, as I said, is the main character of the show. The debate between religion and science is heavy, multi-dimensional, and unresolved which is what makes it such engaging fiction. A special feature of Fire Exit’s performance was a series of discussion questions in the program, designed to encourage a conversation between audience members as they left the show. This is the perfect example of critically thinking about your theatre – a concept I’ve talked positively about in the past. At the end of the show there was no resolve and we were given no moral conclusion which is why it was important to take the topic home and I think including those questions in the program was the best way to handle this topic. 

All of that has been rolled into a one-act play set in the cut out of a make-shift science classroom. In this hour and a half show, directed by Mark Lewandowski, we are treated to life in this small town from the view of a newcomer with supposedly ridged and radical views. Susan is an unyielding character and should be played by an unyielding woman. Krista Marushy plays her with air of grace but I could see her holding back. This is an emotional role but her movement seemed stiff like she was resisting becoming invested from the top of the show. Her quiet moments, where she was soft and chewed on her words, were beautiful to watch. Krista clearly had a very strong understanding of her character. 

Her scene partner Micah, played by Geordie Cowan, gave an equally moving performance. As a righteous teenager with a tortured conscience, Micah’s character spans the entire emotional spectrum. I could see the physical embodiment of those emotions in Geordie’s performance but there were inappropriate moments when he wouldn’t meet the eyes of his fellow actors. It made his performance feel inauthentic which is a shame because the rest of his performance was well thought out, and the physical commitment he made to that character was phenomenal.

The third, and final, character in this one-act journey also gave a very well-rehearsed performance. For the most part Gene, played by John Moerschbacher, acts as the peacemaker which makes his role essential but not nearly as emotional or controversial as the others. I would say that John was prepared for his role but stiff in the execution – as though he were moving on auto-pilot. In my mind, Gene was the most empathetic character for the audience but it wasn’t communicated in a way that made us sympathize with him. 

My props go to the set, lighting, and sound design team on this show. Julie Serger’s set was fascinating and, in my mind, very well executed. The Engineered Air Theatre is a small space in the context of Calgary theatres. Julie’s set took up about three-quarters of that stage which meant the actors had a very little space to work with. The point of the open-faced classroom setting was to feel unfinished, and cramped, and isolated. While it was unfortunate that there were some sight-line issues and the space was tiny, I think Julie’s set design did exactly what it was supposed to do. As for Colin Lowe’s sound design and Juan Hurtado’s lighting design, I think they used the space as best as they could and anything that didn’t appeal to me as an audience member didn’t take me out of the show.

I enjoyed my time at Fire Ext Theatre because of the story they told in “How the World Began.” Not only did they present a controversial topic in a succinct and grey setting, but they demanded that the audience take the discussion home with them and that is something that is so important to me. I sincerely look forward to my next visit to Fire Exit Theatre in April.