Civil elegies – SoulPepper Theatre Company

By Trent Scherer











If you don’t know Dennis Lee, you need to change that. I have to admit that I didn’t know who Dennis Lee was until this October. Seems my brother-in-law had his original copy of Lee’s Alligator Pie published in 1974. I had vague memories of this beloved children’s book, so my niece and I sat and read it to remind me. That was the extent of my knowledge of Lee’s writings.

SoulPepper‘s Mike Ross and Lorenzo Savoini along with Albert Schultz took Lee’s poetry book Civil Elegies (published by Lee over 40 years ago,) and created a beautiful piece of theatre combining Lee’s poetry with musical pieces.

The play and the poetry collection Civil Elegies speaks of what Lee saw around him as a young man sitting in Nathan Philip Square, not long after completion of the new city hall buildings. Hearing the poems sung by Ross was an uplifting experience, even when sometimes the subject matter was a bit disheartening.

The set is simple: a piano, some brick flats and a single TV screen. It may be nothing much, but once you put Ross on the stage and add in projections on the back wall, it is enough to invoke a simple and endearing 75 minutes. Frankly, it could have gone on a bit longer and my buddy Cooper and I would have been fine with that.

We in theatre have a habit of changing a place or a name to tailor to our audience. It’s cheesy and I try not to encourage it. The beauty of Lee is he is a Torontonian who wrote what he saw around him, along with the history he remembered. If you know your history it does help, but it isn’t required. If you do know your Canadian/Ontario/Toronto history you will enjoy references to: the Family Compact, the Spadina Expressway, and HC Hollings’ Paddle to the Sea.

Mike Ross has worked with the poems while creating a number of original songs. He has a great voice that goes raspy as he ascends octaves, and he makes it work for him. If he weren’t speaking in verse when not singing, it would feel like a musician’s Unplugged series. The Michael Young Theatre is a perfect venue for this production for its intimate feeling.

This may not be for everyone. I was afraid my friend Cooper might be bored and fall asleep, but at the end he came out of it saying he really enjoyed it. He is not a fan of Toronto. He’s here for university but even he could not help being drawn into how Ross and Lee captivate the imagination, reworking and rewriting his, and our, ideas of the city and country we live in.

Civil Elegies runs until December 24th at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery District (55 Mill St).
-Performances run Monday to Saturday at 8pm with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2pm with a final performance at 2pm on Thursday, December 24th.
-Ticket cost ranges from $28-$68.
– Tickets are available at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts or calling 416.866.8666.

(Photo of Mike Ross by Cylla von Tiedema)