The Christian Brothers
By Ron Blair
A Canadian Premiere
Presented at the Edmonton Fringe Festival
Directed by Wayne Paquette
Production Design by Brian Bast
Stage Managed by Candice Charney
Set Construction by Patrick Fraser
Program and Poster Design by Martijn Magill
Nominated for 3 Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Awards
Outstanding Fringe Production
Outstanding Actor in a Fringe Play (John Sproule)
Outstanding Director of a Fringe Play (*Winner: Wayne Paquette)
Top Pick of the Fringe
Vue Weekly Best Theatre of 2006 (Excerpt)
by Dave Berry
#4. The Christian Brothers
Wayne Paquette directs John Sproule through the complete destruction of a human being in the best show I saw at last year’s Fringe. Sproule has never been better than his conflicted, confused, desperate despot of a Catholic teacher, attempting to relate to his pupils even as he berates them, as misunderstood about them as he is about himself. Then there’s the fact he almost turned the production into a two-man show with the help of a cowering, insolent, restless desk chair. This was one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen.
VUE WEEKLY – David Berry
John Sproule is out in full effect as a Catholic school teacher trying to get through the afternoon’s lessons, from the way he holsters his strap to his hourly recitations of Hail Mary. Sproule is every bit as proud and pathetic as our best and worst moments, trying desperately to do right with no greater understanding of what that means than the pupils he’s lecturing to. Maybe his greatest trick, though, is turning an ordinary black chair into a back-talking, scolded, cowering school boy, every bit as realized and moving as the man slowly breaking down in front of you. You might see a better play than Christian Brothers this year; you won’t see a better performance than Sproule’s.
5 out of 5 Stars.
SEE MAGAZINE – Gilbert Bouchard
Theatre fans sitting in the first row of Ron Blair’s The Christian Brothers are forgiven if they get nervous. John Sproule, the star of this edgy Australian drama, plays an old school Christian Brother teacher (circa 1950) walking about the stage lecturing to his charges (invisible students represented by an empty chair as well as the all-too-real audience) wielding a mean-looking leather strap. Turns out he’s not afraid to use it, and early in the show beats the living tar out of the empty chair. This made the preteen boy sitting in front of me in the aforementioned front row jump up a good six inches. Needless to say the kid paid RAPT attention for the rest of the show and is VERY glad he’s going to school in the early 21st century. The boy wasn’t alone in paying close attention to Sproule’s flawless performance in a deeply moving play depicting a man’s slow-motion breakdown and soul-shattering crisis of faith. Your Fringe homework class: attend this must-see show or risk your immortal soul (or, forgo bragging rights at the beer tent… I don’t want to be too generous with my star ratings or my damnations)!!
4 1/2 out of 5 stars.
THE EDMONTON JOURNAL – Liz Nicholls
As we discover in The Christian Brothers, a hit solo play by the well-known Australian writer Ron Blair, there are two essential roots of a 1950s Catholic education: the crucifix and the strap.
As it turns out, they are not unrelated. When one fails to flay you, the other one will. Acutally there’s a third, but the Catholics can’t claim exclusive ownership of teacher sarcasm, a dripping acid of exasperation and contempt that could burn the hide off a rampaging buffalo at 100 paces. “What’s a dryad?” demands Brother John (that’s sir to you, you proletarian lump there at the back), gazing at his charges with the unbridled loathing. “Is it a miracle detergent?”
John Sproule, star of Wayne Paquette’s production, knows exactly how to spit teacher sarcasm, from a toxic wellspring of some substance that used to be humour. He also knows that this is a solo show that’s about everything that’s under the text. The more Brother John talks about the vital importance of Catholic faith, the more you know he’s lost it. He flails at his charges with unremitting vigour because he’s afraid that his connection to the mainframe has gone down.
It’s a tangible seminar on a well-known insight, this link between religious conviction, terror and brutality. And Sproule applies major intensity and volume. You see before you a man ranting in order to distract himself from his own doubts, his sense of futility, his furious disappointment. But it’s still a rant. And that’s a lot harder to sustain in the theatre than the classroom.
It does, however, make you appreciate anew the calmer banalities of a secular education.
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
THE EDMONTON SUN – Colin MacLean
I think Ron Blair, the playwright responsible for the hit Australian play, The Christian Brothers, sat two desk over from me in St. Peter`s Boy`s School in 1949. He certainly has the feel for the Catholic schoolroom of those years.
John Sproule (last year`s Sterling winner for best Fringe actor) plays the unnamed Christan brother with just a hint of an Aussie accent. He rules his classroom with an iron fist and an unforgiving faith. He also carries a formidable leather strap with him and regularly beats his recalcitrant charges with vigour.
Along with catechism, literature, geography, languages and physics, he administers life lessons based on his wavering faith. Like most obsessives, whatever his students do is never enough – `Your work is an insult to me – and to God`.
One is stuck with the thought that the fanatic is often thought to be a holy man, an parents send their children to such monsters because they believe the kids need a good grounding in religion – as if what is force-fed by these people has anything to do with the teachings of Christ. Or any other god. `The Catholic faith is a wonderful gift,`he thunders.
A bell rings every hour and he leads them in Hail Mary. The prayer pours from his mouth as if it was a blunt object.
Occasionally he wistfully observes that none of his students ever come back to visit with their old teacher.
But Blair is too good a writer, and Sproule too good an actor, to leave the man without dimension. In his reminiscences, the good brother slowly reveals the forces that made him – forces not unlike the ones he teaches every day in his classroom. As a child, he thought he saw the Blessed Virgin but now he`s not too sure. He needs her to come back and renew his wavering faith. The more he doubts, the more he feels he must pound his beliefs into the heads of this boys. Finally he beats one senseless.
Is any of this funny? Well, surprisingly it is. The humour comes from the character`s complete divorce from reality – living out his life in the Catholic bubble. But, it must be said, despite the intensity of the hour, we`ve heard and seen all this before. From Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You to The Boys of Saint Vincent we are all familiar with the cleric that hides his (or her) lack of faith behind rigid discipline.
And The Christian Brothers tells us little that is new.
One can`t fault Sproule`s well-calibrated performance. There must be a temptation for the actor to go over the top with this driven man, but Sproule resists it to present a lost soul driven by demons and descending into a madness of paranoia and repression.
3 1/2 out of 5 stars