Romantic comedy turns spy thriller: The Romeo Initiative at SkirtsAfire

Heather Cant, Aaron Hursh, Sarah Feutl in The Romeo Initiative, SkirtsAfire Festival. Photo by BB Collective.

By Liz Nicholls,

Against the odds, it’s happening. He’s been a little late in his entrance but your leading man has appeared, finally. Yes, you’ll star in your own romance, finally. Your footing on the terra firma of being single, long maintained, is shaky. You’re ignoring the signs and you’re falling, falling, falling … in love.

What could go wrong, right? A girl’s gotta have her dreams, right? 

The mainstage play that gets a 10-day run under the flag of SkirtsAfire — the six-year-old  multidisciplinary festival that showcases, celebrates, supports, promotes women artists — goes to real-life Cold War history for its setting, and its stinger. Trina Davies’ The Romeo Initiative is set in the dreary government town of Bonn in the 1970s.

A lonely West German secretary with a drab life has unexpectedly met her perfect man — a handsome, busy aid worker — on a Black Sea beach. Amazingly, he’s single. Amazingly, she runs into him again, by chance, at a Bonn bookstore. She can hardly believe her good luck when he’s interested.      

The 2011 play, the 100th new Canadian play to premiere at the late lamented PlayRites Festival at Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects and a Governor General’s Award nominee, is the third by Vancouver-based Davies to be produced this season in Edmonton. Her “theatre home town,” as Davies has put it, has already seen Waxworks at Concordia University and Shatter at Walterdale.

The Romeo Initiative is a romantic comedy — till it’s not. And it’s also a spy thriller. And a drama that probes the anxiety, tension, insecurities and and paranoia that colour relationships.

There’s a spoiler built into the SkirtsAfire show description: The Romeo Initiative is based on a real East German espionage program, administered by the Stasi, that profiled and targeted the romantic insecurities of shy, underachieving West German secretaries.

SkirtsAfire artistic director Annette Loiselle couldn’t believe her luck when she found the script while hunting down plays for her adult scene study class at the Citadel. “How come we haven’t produced it?” she says. “You think you’re in a great romantic love story. And then it goes sideways!”

As Loiselle points out, Davies has made something of a specialty of “taking great historical events and making them contemporary, relevant.” Waxworks is based on the remarkable career of Marie Grosholz, aka Mme Tussaud, on the eve of the French Revolution. Shatter is set in the fearful aftermath of the 1917 Halifax explosion.

This is the fourth year that SkirtsAfire, which has expanded in its Alberta Avenue venues every time out, has produced a MainStage play for a run that beings March 1 as an overture to the four-day festivities (March 8 to 11). The initiative, which “doubled our audience from 600 to 1200 the first year,” began with Nicole Moeller’s The Mothers. Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot followed,, a confrontational mother/ teacher drama. And last year, Tracy Carroll fashioned 10 original 15-minutes from Edmonton playwrights into The Mommy Monologues, a cross-section of insights into motherhood.

“Enough about mothers!” laughs Loiselle. Very different are the two women characters of The Romeo Initiative, the one shy and the other more flamboyant, who end up in a love triangle that is “both a battleground and a betrayal,” as Loiselle puts it.

The ambiguities of the piece are meat and drink to director Nancy McAlear, who brought to the stage the most enigmatic piece of theatre seen in Edmonton last season: Bryony Lavery’s The Believers. Ambiguity, she says, “forces the audience to engage.”

“There’s an expansive romantic feel to Act I,” says McAlear of the set-up where Karin meets an alluring man on a beach vacation. “In a series of ‘coincidental’ events she gets swept away….” An eligible single man “at a time when a whole generation of men were lost to the war” is almost too good to be true. “Especially for someone quiet and introspective, resigned to a life of being single,” as Karin is.

Aaron Hursh in The Romeo Initiative, SkirtsAfire Festival. Photo by BB Collective.

“Then the play flips, in a very cool way, in Act II” says McAlear, who will direct next season’s Citadel mainstage production of something a lot more light-hearted: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. “You see the same events from the man’s point of view…. You get to see that when he was doing this, he was thinking that. At least two or three scenes are repeats — almost the same but with little deviations.

“It’s a romantic comedy, and then you see it again with new eyes…. Trina (playwright Davies) has opened the door for ambiguity in the character of the man. To what degree was he just doing his job? ” The scenes get shorter and shorter and come at you non-stop: “every character has at least one scene where they’re not telling the truth, and there’s so much that’s not said, underneath the dialogue….”  

As she points out, “this makes it very challenging for the actors,” not only forgetting which act they’re in when they say something, or saying in a way that doesn’t take into account ‘we don’t know that yet’.” McAlear sighs happily: “so much subtext! So much betrayal!”

And there’s another allure for McAlear, who’s moved back to Toronto, where she was before she arrived in Edmonton to do a master’s degree in directing (and ended up staying three years longer than she’d intended). “The ’70s! My favourite decade!”

The ’70s, really? Think of all that polyester. “I was a kid,” McAlear laughs. “I was still happy, before I realized how challenging life could be. I loved my clothes! I loved disco!”


The Romeo Initiative

SkirtsAFire Festival 2018

Written by: Trina Davies

Directed by: Nancy McAlear

Starring: Sarah Feutl, Heather Cant, Aaron Hursh

Where: Cabaret Theatre, Alberta Avenue Community League, 9210 118 Ave.

Running: March 1 to 11

Tickets: From March 1 to 7, TIX on the Square (780-420-1757,; during the festival itself, all tickets by donation.

Morgan Nadeau in Silenced, SkirtsAfire Festival. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

Other theatre at SkirtsAfire:

Silenced by and starring Morgan Nadeeau (directed by Jan Henderson): a bravely personal solo show that explores that great double-taboo: depression and anxiety. Nadeau is the founder of Fool Spectrum Theatre, and runs the E-Town Clown Cabaret. SkirtsAfire’s Loiselle says it’s the show most requested by schools for their kids. March 10, Cabaret Theatre, Alberta Avenue Community League, 9210 118 Ave.

Peep Show: Curated and dramaturged by Tracy Carroll. A double-offering of new plays: 27/37 by Bevin Dooley and In The Place Of Stars by Christine Lesiak. March 10 and 11, Cabaret Theatre as above.


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