When theatergoers enter the venue at the Monument National for a performance of the documentary play Seeds, they are greeted by a slanted wooden stage. The bonnet of a rusted-out truck caps the low end, telephone poles guard the center and the high end of the stage trails off into stairs. The skewed set is an apt metaphor for a play about a determined farmer who fights a large multinational corporation over the issue of genetically modified organisms: this was a battle fought on an uneven playing ground.
Seeds, the documentary play by Porte Parole playwright Annabel Soutar, explores the issue of the “ownership” life through the lens of the Schmeiser v Monstanto case. In 1997, Bruno, Saskatchewan, farmer Percy Schmeiser was surprised to discover pesticide-resistant canola plants growing in one of his fields. The Monsanto company (most notoriously known for having produced the deadly chemical “Agent Orange”) sells genetically modified “Roundup Ready” canola, resistant to the herbicide “Roundup” (a product they also sell). After spraying a chunk with pesticides to confirm his suspicions that the crop was indeed “Roundup Ready,” he harvested the remaining plants and kept the seeds to plant the following year.
Monstanto found out and tried to bully the farmer into reimbursing them for lost profits. Schmeiser claimed that he didn’t know how the seeds got there and couldn’t control the ecosystem to fit in neatly with Monsanto’s patents. The case went to court. The judge decided that, regardless of how the seeds got there, the patent law must be upheld and the farmer was handed the corporation’s massive legal bill. Schmeiser appealed, the case went to the Supreme Court of Canada, and although the second verdict was still in favour of the corporation’s patent, Schmeiser was no longer required to pay legal costs or damages to the company.
The six-actor, thirty-nine-character play Seeds assembles many—often contradictory—viewpoints to build a balanced history of the case, and the presentation is one that allows the audience to draw its own conclusions. Soutar has selected text from news accounts, interviews and court transcripts to build a finely woven tale, but it also makes for a heavy session. The actors play several roles and each character, save for Schmeiser, wears a legal robe—a metaphor for their ability to offer judgment on the case. Character changes are signaled by subtle differences in the way the robes are worn, yet these shifts in costume and body language are often too insignificant to indicate a change has occurred before the actor is a few lines into their new role. The result is that it quickly becomes difficult to keep track of who is who and who is important, and the supporting characters end up being one-dimensional and secondary to the information they deliver.
But the goal of Porte Parole’s documentary theatre is to stimulate social dialogue—and not in a one-sided way, either. Schmeiser is a difficult figure, well-played by Chip Chuipka as both an unassuming media darling and a crotchety old man nearing retirement. Though the narrative has been painted as a David and Goliath story, Soutar chooses to throw Schmeiser’s integrity into question, divulging ambiguous and conflicting information that makes us question why he chooses to dig in his heels. Schmeiser’s character is revealed to us to be both a hard-done-by farmer and a calculating crusader with an axe to grind.
While the play ultimately staggers under the weight of its own details, the finished product is an extremely well-rounded representation of the classic case of farmer-versus- corporation. Most importantly, it succeeds in allowing the audience to make up its own mind.
Seeds runs until December 3 at Monument National. Visit the Porte Parole website for more information.
Melissa Wheeler is getting to know Montreal's culture creators. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Melissa Wheeler.