'Icemen' by Vern Thiessen
World Premiere presented by Theatre by the Bay now onstage at Five Points Theatre, 1 Dunlop Street West, Barrie
Credit: Hollinshead Media. L-R: Tom Keat, Nathan Howe, Isaish Kolundzic
"Suspenseful! Thrilling! Entertaining! ‘Icemen’ is a Canadian story, and it’s ours!"
Vern Thiessen’s newest world premiere takes place on the icy banks of Barrie at the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Times are tough for everyone, not only for the characters of ‘Icemen’ but those who live in Barrie. When times are tough, sometimes the unthinkable can very well happen.
The setting is a wooden icehouse. We meet two desperate brothers: Joe (Isaiah Kolundzic) and his not-too-swift brother, Rennie (Tom Keat). The two commit an act of vengeance and defiance against their upscale employer, F. F. (Nathan Howe) and hold him hostage. F. F. threatens to destroy the brothers’ livelihood – ice harvesting on Kempenfelt Bay. I won’t spoil here what F. F. stands for, as you will find out.
This opening night edge-of-the-seat thriller has a great deal going for it.
For one, Barrie’s Theatre by the Bay's mandate is to continue showcasing and producing rich local stories. The company commissioned Thiessen to write a play about Barrie. He had never been to the city before and didn’t know anything about it but discovered a treasure trove of stories – one of them being the ice harvesters who worked on Kempenfelt Bay. In the playwright’s programme note, Thiessen writes how the ice harvesters saw their livelihood taken away by greed and refrigeration, an ‘innovation’ that, over time, has contributed to the climate change that now threatens Canadian lakes and oceans. I did not know the local history of Barrie, and this bit of information piqued my curiosity about how it would tie into the story.
So, “Icemen” is a story of high stakes. The world of the Depression was one of gradual change and innovation. There was great social inequity and economic disparity, as playwright Thiessen tells in his Programme Note. People in the Depression had a tough time making ends meet. There were also individuals at this time who had too much power.
Sounds somewhat familiar, doesn’t it? We’re experiencing this right now in our twenty-first century woke world.
The big question – did this opening night production work on the Five Points Theatre stage?
Yes, it does.
Skillfully, I will add.
This world-premiere production is one of which I hope other Canadian theatre companies will take notice. Not only is it suspenseful, thrilling, and entertaining, but ‘Icemen’ is one of our stories as Canadians and for Canadians.
Joe Pagnan’s gorgeous set design of the rugged wooden icehouse prominently figures centre stage. I closely examined what I could do from my seat about three-quarters of the way up in the house. Brenda Thompson has paid meticulous attention to the selection of 1930s-period piece props. I loved the icepick that would have been used to help drag the ice blocks to the wooden house. Like all good suspenseful stories, nevertheless, some of these items become nefariously used for shocking purposes. Logan Raju Cracknell’s shadowy lighting designs duly enhance the suspenseful atmosphere of both the ruggedness and the sense of loneliness that might also surround the lives of these ice harvesters. Madeline Ius’s costumes are believable period recreations of the clothing the brothers would have worn as they worked outside. F.F.’s clothing strongly gives the impression there is a social and financial strata division.
Mathew Magneson creates an extraordinary soundscape of howling winds that strongly emphasizes how cold it must have been for these harvesters. Not only that, but the sound also underscores how lonely and abandoned it must have felt for these individuals who worked out on the Bay. Magneson also places the sound of the howling wind throughout to help in the growing and suspenseful plot momentum. It’s effective in the aural sense, that’s for sure.
Vern Thiessen’s gripping script makes the audience listen carefully to the spoken dialogue, which becomes crucial to the suspenseful intensity of any edge-of-the-seat story. Thiessen surely knows how to grab an audience’s attention right away. At the top of the show, F. F. is tied to a chair, and Joe casually smokes a cigarette while talking to F.F. and the audience.
A strong word of advice - make sure you do listen carefully because the play is wordy but oh, so very important in building to the story’s climax.
Iain Moggach directs with an assured confidence that never wavers. Not only does he envision believable characters, but he also creates one hell of an excellent Canadian story that makes our culture a unique one. As he writes in his programme note, “Icemen” is more than just ice.
‘Icemen’ is a story of history repeating itself in new ways. Yes, that’s a scary thought, but it also makes for good entertainment.
The three-member cast remains solid throughout, always listening and responding with a credible believability.
As brothers Joe and Rennie, Isaiah Kolundzic and Tom Keat deliver bold and fearless performances. Rennie is not a dimwit, but he doesn’t have the ‘smarts’ like his brother, Joe. Kolundzic and Keat are in synchronicity with each other. They behave and speak as brothers often do, especially when the two might not agree on handling the situation with F. F. I applaud Nathan Howe’s work as F. F, Joe and Rennie’s supervisor. For a good portion of the play, Howe is tied to a chair, so there is little room for him to move about the stage like Kolundzic and Keat. Instead, Howe’s performance strength emanates from his listening carefully to the other two and using his voice to indicate the varied emotional levels he experiences. When freed from the chair, Howe effectively controls his energy level and doesn’t allow it to upstage Kolundzic and Keat.
There’s a bubbling, boiling and ultimately scalding intensity watching the events unfold at the end.
And it’s good theatre.
And that’s why you should get to the Five Points Theatre to see this Canadian piece that will hopefully be picked up and produced around the province.
Running time: approximately 85 minutes with no intermission.
‘Icemen’ runs until November 12 at the Five Points Theatre, 1 Dunlop Street West, Barrie. For tickets, call the Box Office at (705) 739-4228 or visit https://tprocob.ticketpro.ca/en/pages/COB_TBTB_Icemen
Theatre by the Bay presents the world premiere of ‘Icemen’ by Vern Thiessen
Directed and produced by Iain Moggach
Stage Manager: Khaleel Gandi
Production Manager: Rochelle Reynolds
Set Designer: Joe Pagnan
Lighting Designer: Logan Raju Cracknell
Music Director/Composer: Mathew Magneson
Costume Designer: Madeline Ius
Props: Brenda Thompson
Performers: Nathan Howe as F. F.; Tom Keat as Rennie; Isaiah Kolundzic as Joe