By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Death. Blood. Dark mysteries laced with eerie hints of the supernatural. A smudgy frontier between waking and dreaming, the ambiguous nature of reality, black comedy of the shivery sort…. This is Cat Walsh’s native habitat as a playwright.
Naturally, she’s attracted to the Church — as you’ll see in Do This In Memory Of Me, the new Walsh premiering tonight in English and Friday in French, a joint commission by Northern Light Theatre and L’UniThéâtre.
Her protagonist, 12-year-old Geneviève, is desperate to be an altar server. And altar servers are a boys-only elite, even though, hey, it’s 1963, it’s Montreal, and the old rule-bound world is rotating on its axis, starting to fling off ancient proscriptions.
Walsh, over lunch, is remembering her own younger self, growing up in a big Ottawa family of “heavy-duty Catholics, Italian and Irish. “As a little kid I wanted very dearly to be an altar server,” she grins. “And our church didn’t allow it. That’s just how it was.”
What was the nature of that dream? “To have a little spotlight, and responsibility, I think. I wanted to ring the bell….” Walsh laughs. Maybe it was that not everybody got to do it.”
“I think my interest in theatricality and (laugh) gruesome stuff really comes out of Catholicism,” she thinks. “The pageantry of it. The re-enactment of the Last Supper, a play-within-a-play! Blood and guts, and digging people up to see if they’ve decomposed! The belief that a saint’s body stays as it is, it’s extremely creepy, but very fascinating to me!” If the touring saint’s arm had come here, Walsh would have lined up to see it in a heartbeat.
A certain dark, not to say macabre, streak runs through her work, as Walsh cheerfully acknowledges. In 2016, when Workshop West asked eight Edmonton playwrights where they’d like to be embedded for a month for their This Is YEG initiative, Walsh picked a funeral home. Her playlet? One Day You And I Will Die. Her 2015 The Laws of Thermodynamics happens three days before the end of the world, in one of the world’s last repositories of capital punishment, the disintegrating Texas town of Crumb (population: three). A journalist arrives; no matter where he goes, always ends up back where he started.
In Eleven-Oh-Four, Walsh’s solo thriller (in which she starred), the protagonist who’s dreamed her way into another life, can never quite be sure whether she’s awake or asleep.
Walsh has intriguingly described one of her early plays, The Rhythm Method, as “a surrealist medieval drama that shifts in time, with multiple versions of the same story.” Bedlam Theatre, the company she shares with a couple of other actor/playwrights, her husband James Hamilton and Collin Doyle, was born in that project.
But, as Walsh, a bilingual theatre grad from l’Université d’Ottawa, explains, she’d never written a play before she moved to Edmonton on a friend’s advice 16 or so years ago. “She said it was full of theatre, and I wanted to make something happen for myself.”
A friend here, who was taking a degree in directing, needed a new play, and asked Walsh to write one. A playwright was born, in a historical play “about art forgery in World War II, and a man who sold Vermeers to the Nazis.”
Since then, the Walsh body of dark, mysterious comedies , for both Bedlam and other theatre companies, has grown. And so has her belief that “reality is a continuum that’s constantly changing.. That’s my favourite part of theatre,” grins Walsh, who says she generally doesn’t know where a play will end when she starts to write it.
That thought finds its way into Do This In Memory Of Me. “In Geneviève’s imagination, we’re in a room in the church, in space, underwater…. And it’ not shackled to chronology.”
Geneviève prays for an exception to the boys-only rule for altar server membership. And when the star altar boy goes missing on his way home from school, she wonders whether her prayers have been answered in morbid fashion. On the domestic front, her mother, too, has vanished, “a source of friction between Geneviève and her dad,” as Walsh says.
“She’s at the age when she thinks adults are withholding answers,” says Walsh. “And to grow up is to understand that aren’t always answers; some things are just mysterious…. Geneviève is on the edge of that chasm, a crisis of faith.”
“Why do bad things happen to people? When you’re a kid everything is centred on you. And it’s a mind-blowing coming-of-age moment when you realize that there’s a whole world out there.”
Walsh is currently working on another new play, Fetch (based on quantum theory), for a Fringe premiere. Meanwhile there’s Geneviève and her predicament. “I was worried that it was kind of a sweet play,” Walsh laughs. “Supernatural and gruesome, there’s that. But a sweet little play. And with a hopeful ending.”
Hopeful but ambiguous. “I like ambiguity,” says the playwright with an enigmatic smile. “It’s the room you leave for the audience.”
Do This In Memory Of Me/ En mémoire de moi
Theatre: Northern Light and L’UniThéâtre
Written by: Cat Walsh (translated by Manon Beaudoin)
Directed by: Trevor Schmidt
Starring: Nicole St. Martin, Brian Dooley, Steve Jodoin
Where: La Cité francophone, 8627 91 St.
Running: through March 25, alternate performances in English and French
Tickets: northernlighttheatre.com and lunitheatre.ca