Good Timber? Great Timber!

 Frankly, Good Timber is probably worth it for the wealth of logging slang alone.  Secretly, we all wanted to know when to say “guthammer,” or what “galloping goose” means, right?  But Timber, a musical revue inspired by the great Robert E. Swanson, has plenty more to offer.  Its imaginative and personal stories combine with enthusiastic, authentically folksy original music to create a genuine slice of toe-tapping Canadiana.

Logging and its history are subjects that can get the British Columbian hackles up pretty quickly.  Growing up in a small town where the brown Zs of the logging roads were always visible on the green of the mountains, I quickly learned that the trucks, the trees, the protests, and the trade laws were all equally precarious conversational territory at potlucks and dinner parties.

But the revue sidesteps all of this with good-natured ease.

Its songs and stories are of unique, well-painted characters; that are blissfully and completely unaware of a big picture beyond the swing of the axe or the whistle of the locomotive.  After a song or two, we’re not concerned with anything but relaxing and hearing the alternately bawdy, touching, and comedic stories of life in the woods (and, of course, nights on the town).

And so, in a quick and high-energy 90 minutes, we’re given stories and characters glowing roundly with nostalgia and the passion of what one can only call a simpler time.  Good Timber’s men and women are often the fanciful characters of tall tales, but they’re rooted in the genuine mentality of those who lived for the forest.  The hint of wistfulness that runs throughout the performance speaks to a bond with nature lost in the technological advances of contemporary logging – these people, we are told, felt a need to be among the trees.

And, of course, it’s all very manly.  The rough-and-tumble comradeship of the camps and the seemingly spiritual challenge between man and tree are often front and center in Swanson’s words, and at times there’s a Hemingway feel to the “men without women” conditions the songs describe.  In performance, though, the harmonies of male and female voices, and the many ensemble songs, are welcome and fitting.  And the women get some of the best stories, too – Colleen Eccleston’s performance of James Stevens’ “The Frozen Logger” is a particular delight.

Nothing with swaggeringly masculine characters would be complete, of course, without some good ol’ machinery.  The odes to the machines of old, and of the workers’ intimate connections to the locomotives and massive trucks upon which they relied, provide some of the revue’s funniest numbers, as well as some of its most melancholy.  “Cat Skinner’s Prayer,” in which the revue harmonizes, choir-like, a devout petition to “the God of Internal Combustion,” is an extremely funny – but equally telling – characterization of the relationship between worker and machine.

The camaraderie that is present amongst the actors as they perform is so particularly credible because it’s tied up with the camaraderie we imagine in the logging crews, where lives depended on responsible, safe work.  Throughout the performance, there are enough tales of danger and hardship to disillusion anyone, and in the face of it all, the characters’ resilient positivity and cheerful self-deprecation (the loggers call themselves “the apes of B.C.”) becomes highly charming.  The clever interplay of the ensemble songs, as characters pick up each other’s lines, harmonize, and throw witty asides back and forth, not only makes for enjoyable musical numbers, but also serves as a part of the generally loving depiction of those one might find in the camps.

Good Timber taps into a fascinating part of our cultural heritage and presents its stories in a lively, infectiously reverent way.  Its tales – sometimes tall, sometimes small – are always fraught with humour and personality.  “That was frickin’ adorable,” was my viewing companion’s succinct review when the lights went up, and she was right; by the end, we can’t help but feel warm-hearted enthusiasm for all the characters we’ve just met.

By the way, a “guthammer” is the much-anticipated dinner gong…but the definition of “galloping goose,” along with countless other great colloquialisms, is waiting at the Firehall Arts Centre!

Good Timber is currently showing at the Firehall Arts Centre until August 19th, 2012.