MONTREAL – Joseph Shragge demonstrates how a playwright can draw from his own life for work that, on the surface, seems far removed from it. Bar Kapra the Squirrel Hunter runs from March 4 to 13 at the Studio Jean-Valcourt du Conservatoire, 4750 Henri Julien St., bringing to the stage the tale of a man out to rid the world of what he considers pests but compromises those nearest to him in the process.
Montreal does have its share of squirrels, and Bar Kapra, his companion Bat Kapra and their protégée, Trout, are hiking through a wooded area and up a mountain.
Their surroundings are inspired by our own Mount Royal at the centre of the city, as well as the Greek sacred mountains mentioned in The Bacchae. Shragge adapted that Greek tragedy in 2012 for his theatre company Scapegoat Carnivale, founded with co-artistic director Alison Darcy six years earlier.
The name of the main character in Bar Kapra issues from Shragge’s days at Bialik High School, where he enjoyed Jewish literature. In 2003, The Golem inspired the automatons in his play The Scavenger’s Daughter.
Such appreciation extended to the musings between friends when he and two buddies were “looking at an Ecclesiastes midrash where Bar Kapra, who was a sort of fabulist (storyteller), was angry that he wasn’t invited to a dinner, so he showed up there, and every time someone brought out food, he started telling more stories about foxes to keep people from eating,” Shragge says.
“We translated it, published it in Matrix magazine around 2004, and then started writing our own stories about foxes. I picked up on it a couple of years ago and he [Bar Kapra] somehow became a squirrel hunter telling stories about foxes.”
Beyond the 39-year-old playwright’s days at Bialik, old Chinese plays became a source of fascination. The tragic story of Dou E in Snow in Midsummer became the inspiration for the orphan Trout’s predicament in Bar Kapra, caught as she is in the midst of the couple’s feud.
The feud is the heart of the story as Bat Kapra formulates her revenge after her husband (or brother – the playwright says it may be either) wounds her with his squirrelling gun.
“Trout gets shuttled back and forth between them like a kid in a divorce,” Shragge says. “It’s a tragic-comic, absurdist fable with a lot of jokes and silliness, but there’s an underlying humanism and, finally, a real hope for the possibility of relationships.”
The cast is made up of a stellar trio: Chip Chuipka, France Rolland and Jennifer Roberts as Trout.
Shragge delights in giving directors and designers challenges within his scripts. For Bar Kapra, director Andreas Apergis and no less than seven designers meet the challenge of recreating the mountain that morphs from fall to winter.
They must also visualize the story through the eyes of Trout, who happens to have synesthesia, seeing different colours for what she hears.
Videos by Philippe Blanchette and Trevor Kiernander projected onto set designer Patrice Charbonneau-Brunelle’s suspended panels, surround-sound and Julie Basse’s lighting that reflects on Susana Vera’s homespun-style costumes make the play an immersive experience for the audience.
David Oppenheim and Joseph Browne are the composer/sound designers behind the recorded music, with Browne using a broken mandolin to recreate the creaks of wood in the forest.
Last June, the play was workshopped at the Montreal Fringe Festival and nominated for Best English Text.
Shragge has had past successes with his plays The Works in 2007 and The Heretics of Bohemia in 2012, when the company was in residence at the Segal Centre.
Only 40 audience members at a time can attend this production, on chairs set up between the actors’ walkways.
Advance reservations are a must at 514-873-4031 or by clicking here.