By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Jasper has to save the princess.”
When Nicole Moeller follows the thread of her new play back back back to its birthplace, that’s the line she heard in her head.
Intriguing, yes, and not just because you need to know from whom? from what?. The line gives off a fairy tale pheromone that’s highly unusual even by the standards of a Moeller archive of plays that step up to difficult stories from oblique angles. It comes with question marks, and nary a happily ever after in sight, in The Preacher, The Princess, and a Crow. It premieres Thursday in an Azimuth Theatre production directed by Fringe boss Murray Utas, and starring Steve Pirot.
And there’s this departure from Moeller practice: it’s written in rhyme, laced with alliteration.
“Bizarre! It’s not how I write!” Moeller laughs, glancing at Utas with a question mark of her own last week over a pre-rehearsal sip. “Intriguing, poetic and weird!” declares Utas approvingly, nodding with his usual exuberance. “And some more weird got at it last night at rehearsal!”
Moeller’s new solo play follows a dark and dangerous tangle of motives back to an urban rooming house where a former street preacher has exiled himself, for reasons you’ll discover. “I’m really interested in compulsions, addictions, guilt, shame, the things that haunt us,” says Moeller. “And Jasper is haunted by the devil; his task is to save the princess from the devil, the crow.” And the crow isn’t easy to shake: As Jasper says in the play, “that crow has been following me my whole life….”
Moeller explains that The Preacher… was a response, in a way, to her 2011 play An Almost Perfect Thing. That disconcerting drama was inspired by a horrific 2006 news story about an Austrian girl, kidnapped at 10, who finally fled her captor eight years later. In the ensuing media frenzy, the newly minted celeb controlled her messages, her story, her accessibility. And what was a lurid crime victim story turned, at Moeller’s unexpected angle of insight, into an exploration of the media/ celebrity symbiosis, and the ownership of stories.
“I never really solved the character of the kidnapper,” muses Moeller, typically a relentless critic of her own work. “He always felt inauthentic, not humanized. I didn’t feel connected to him.” That’s why the preacher character in her new play “spoke to me so strongly,” she thinks. “More, I think, than any character I’ve written…. There’s always a crow for all of us. We all hold onto our own traumas, our compulsions.”
What if, as Utas points out, “your compulsion is way past acceptable, where is the empathy for that? There is none.”
“It’s a tough play, very tough,” says Moeller, who collected degrees in both journalism and musical theatre en route to her playwright’s career. “That’s why I took on the structure of the hero’s journey…. and added a (softening) element of fantasy, fairy tale….”
Provocative questions aren’t exactly a departure for either Moeller or Utas. In Moeller’s The Mothers, which premiered at Skirts AFire in 2015, we meet the mother of a teenage son who’s taken a gun to school, and used it. At Azimuth, Utas, a career advocate for new work, has been part of such radically original Azimuth pieces as Pirot’s Freeman On The Land; Su-Kat, a kind of 3-D comic strip dreamscape; Apocalypse Prairie, an unclassifiable theatre/sound collage designed as a group portrait of Us Albertans.
Theatre is fond (well, over-fond really) of the journey motif. But, with The Preacher… a whole eventful chapter of Edmonton theatre history has intervened since the moment, five years ago, when the Azimuth team, artistic producer Utas and artistic director Pirot, asked Moeller to write a two-hander for them to be in together. “Sure! That’d be wild!” she smiles at the memory. “Little did I know….”
Since that time, a two-hander has become a solo play. Pirot announced he was leaving Azimuth; he’s now the director of iHuman Youth Society. “The Fringe came knocking,” as Utas puts it; he’s now the director of that mighty festival. At one point, the premiere was scheduled for The ARTery, and that venue shut down mere months before opening night.
And Kristi Hansen and Vanessa Sabourin, Azimuth’s new joint artistic directors, wanted it for the capper of their debut season.
As for the play itself, which had a “test drive” (as Utas puts it) at the 2016 Expanse Movement Arts Festival, everything about it has been reworked — except the character and the final image. Which is fine with Moeller, who’s never seen a lead time she didn’t want to lengthen and rewrites she didn’t want a chance to try. “I have a really hard time when I can’t change things any more.”
“I have never experienced anything quite like this collaboration with a playwright,” says Utas happily. “Not just re-writes, sometimes whole new drafts, sometimes whole new plays, would show up along the way…. But the essence of Jasper was always there.” He pauses. “I really respected Nicole taking the time she needed to get the play she wanted done.”
The production was a moveable proposition, too, Utas reports. “At one point we were going to put everybody in the dark…. At one point it was going to be site-specific and immersive: we thought we’d be moving it into someone’s apartment.”
In the end, not only did Pirot agree to do the play — a huge relief to Moeller and Utas since Pirot’s kind of bravery is by no means universal — but Jasper’s isolation chamber is now to be found at the Fringe’s Backstage Theatre. Utas has reconfigured it for a sense of claustrophobia, at 50 seats. Which dovetails nicely with his Fringe plans to occupy more fully, and produce in, the spaces of the ATB Financial Arts Barns.
“An art house having something to say!” declares Utas, whose is his goodbye to Azimuth, where his consultant role ended April 30 (and left him for the first time in years, with only one job). “To have the courage to tell this story: We’re coming back to that again — at the Fringe! What a wonderful way to say goodbye to that, and hello to this!”
As Utas points out, a controversial play sends the right Fringe signals. “The Fringe was born on the edge. The word itself defines the edge! The Backstage is subversive in nature. You enter from the alley.”
It’s like a speakeasy that way. Tell them Utas sent you.
The Preacher, The Princess, And A Crow
Written by: Nicole Moeller
Directed by: Murray Utas
Starring: Steve Pirot
Where: The Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: through May 27
Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca