By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
No pressure, Cardiac Theatre. But the clock is ticking.
The play that opens Thursday in the PCL Studio Theatre starts at 8 p.m. And it ends precisely, unforgivingly, 59 minutes later. No need to be sneaking illicit peeks at your cell: You can see the progress of time by the onstage clock. You can’t avoid it.
“I’m terrified and excited by the countdown,” grins director Harley Morison, a Cardiac co-found along with Jessica Glover. “Even for me, as the director, it’s ‘something has to be done’, a nail-biter.”
The play is Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes by the Canadian wunderkind playwright Jordan Tannahill, whose work has never been produced in Edmonton till now. It’s one of the three plays in the queer youth Age of Minority triptych that won him the Governor General’s Award in 2014, age 24. And the eerie countdown that frames his play is how long it takes the title character to die.
As Tannahill says in his notes, Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes is is inspired by a photograph of the real Peter Fechter, a young East German bricklayer, shot while trying to cross the Berlin Wall with his friend Helmut on August 17, 1962. We meet him in the last 59 minutes of his life, as he lay dying in the Death Strip.
“Theatrically, I was intrigued by the clock. And the voices,” says Morison of the way Peter’s finale is haunted, aurally, by the voices of his world — Helmut, his mother, his father. “The play is in Peter’s mind. Everything is coloured by his perception…. The voices are the ghosts of the people he’s lived his life with; he’s searching for a final connection. The mining for a sense of fulfilment and love is the forward motion of the play.”
And, as its name would suggest, Cardiac gravitates towards “young characters in extreme situations, dealing with things most adults don’t have to deal with,” witness the company’s calling card production of Ella Hickson’s Hot Mess last season, followed by Wajdi Mouawad’s Pacamambo at the Fringe.
Peter Fechter, at 18 and gay, with a growing awareness of the repressive/ oppressive dangers of his closeted world, would certainly fit into that Cardiac gallery. The play opens with the sound of a gunshot, and the fatal clock countdown. “My mother always told me; never fall asleep with an unanswered question, lest it haunt your dreams,” he tells us at the outset.
That question, it transpires, has everything to do with taking a huge risk to change your life and find love. Is the risk worth it? “He’s young, he’s just waking up to the cultural realities, to a sense of rebellion against something unjust ” says Morison of Peter, played by Bradley Doré.
Peter’s friend Helmut is more daring, more impulsive; “he’s an intoxicant for Peter,” says Morison, who considered, then rejected, the idea of putting other actors, not just their voices, onstage with Doré. “It seemed too artificial…. Peter is finding the journey inward, finding the answers in himself. I think the voices are written to be not physical.”
Conjuring a world with characters and city sounds means that Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes poses intricate technical challenges. “We want to create a sense of moving around space with the sound,” grins Morison. “Tricky: we’re blocking actors who are not there.”
The central character, whose memories are the fabric of the play, is “no chump’s role,” as Morison says. Calgary-based Doré, a recent University of Alberta acting grad, is “an amazingly imaginative actor, both youthful in demeanour and physicality, who can build this world and make it convincing.” He’s the only actor onstage.
And there’s the clock.
Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes
Theatre: Cardiac Theatre
Written by: Jordan Tannahill
Directed by: Harley Morison
Starring: Bradley Doré, with Michele Fleiger, Doug Mertz, Morgan Grau
Where: PCL Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: through Jan. 22