Fun with the macabre: two veteran actors together at last in Fly Me To The Moon at Shadow Theatre

Annette Loiselle and Elinor Holt in Fly Me To The Moon, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2018

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“We’re two caregivers, two nobodies,” says Frances to Loretta in the dark-hued Irish comedy that opens tonight on the Varscona stage.

In Fly Me To The Moon, by the Belfast playwright Marie Jones, an initiative that starts minor and harmless — and sympathetic to cash-strapped nobodies like Frances and Loretta — will get bigger and faster and crazier by the second.

When their ancient homecare client, Davey, fails to re-emerge from the bathroom — mainly because he’s dead — Frances gets a bright idea. Why not hold off on reporting this fatal turn of events, long enough so they can pocket his 120 quid pension cheque?

“They pull a thread and the whole sweater unravels!” says Elinor Holt, who co-stars with Annette Loiselle in John Hudson’s production. Loiselle calls it “a romp — with contortions.”

“They keep getting into more and more trouble,” says Holt. “And every time they could still get out of it … well, that doesn’t happen,” says Loiselle. 

The actors are hanging out in the Varscona Theatre lobby, on a break from rehearsal last week, making each other laugh, musing on the way comedy can turn into farce, and marvelling jointly how few two-hander comedies for “middle-aged women” there are, on either side of the Atlantic.

OK, there’s Thelma and Louise. And there’s…. They pause to reassess, and come up short. “Well, OK, I’m Oscar and she’s Felix,” says Holt, Calgary-based but with an ample (and regular) assortment of Edmonton productions to her credit. Most recently audiences here saw her in two high-profile (and high-contrast) shows in 2013, Pig Girl at Theatre Network and Catalyst Theatre’s dark fantasia Soul Collector (as the eerie title character). The season before, she cavorted in a wimple at Northern Light Theatre in The Ecstatics, a kooky two-nun clown comedy about women’s body issues.

The unusual Irish comic caper was a draw for them. Fly Me To The Moon brings together, amazingly for the first time, two veteran comic actors who were at the U of A at the same time but have never been onstage together. Any stage, much less the new Varscona stage.

Holt already had her eye on the play — “I’d wanted to pitch it in Calgary” — when the Shadow production was announced, last summer. Then working just out of town at Rosebud Theatre, she drove into Calgary to audition. “I saw the very first Shadow show,” she says of the explosive production of  Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love, which launched the venerable Edmonton company 36 seasons ago. She remembers the cast (Shaun Johnston and Lindsay Burns); she remembers the Fringe venue (the old mill in Strathcona). “Oh, I want to work for that theatre!” she remembers thinking.

As for Loiselle, the last Shadow production she was in was The Last Train (by Beth Graham and Daniela Vlaskalic) in 2004. “I loved it!” she says. “It was such a happy experience.” Fly Me To The Moon, she says, is “kind of comedy I like, comedy that comes out of situation, high stakes.”

Elinor Holt and Annette Loiselle in Fly Me To The Moon, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Yes, there’s a long lead time building up to this Shadow duo. And for both actors, it hasn’t exactly been idle. 

Holt, originally from the farm hamlet of New Norway near Camrose, and Loiselle, who’s from an acreage near Namao, have a lot in common. Numerous progeny, for example. Loiselle, one of 10 siblings herself, has four kids including twins; Holt, one of seven kids, has three. In case you hadn’t noticed, kids take time.

So do theatre companies. Both Holt and Loiselle have a tendency to co-found them. Loiselle and five of her equally fresh-faced fellow U of A theatre school grads wanted to do Shakespeare. The Free Will Players started as a summer co-op, and became a professional rep company and a favourite summer festival. And Loiselle has played every kind of role in the canon, from romantic ingenue to venging fury.

More recently, she’s the founder and artistic director of the SkirtsAfire Festival, the six-year-old multidisciplinary arts fest in March devoted to showcasing and enhancing the work of women artists. “Attendance was up 21 per cent this year,” reports Loiselle happily. Trina Davies’ The Romeo Initiative was an over-capacity draw in its tiny Alberta Avenue venue. The houses were full for new play readings, which rarely happens in the real world.  Loiselle smiles, and winces: “Oh no, I think we need a theatre.”

Those kinds of thoughts are not without repercussions; Loiselle has a history of delivering.

Holt, who left Edmonton in 1990, first for a master’s degree at York University and then for Calgary, is a co-founder of Concrete Theatre here, and Evergreen Theatre there. The latter is a “theatre of the natural world” enterprise that started by creating and performing science-based pieces in Kananaskis Country. These days Evergreen, which has its own performing and rehearsal space in Calgary, has taken pieces to such destinations as the Royal Ontario Museum, and schools everywhere.

After the birth of her third kid, Holt curtailed her Evergreen involvement. But here she is in Edmonton, for weeks. Luckily, as she says, Holt is married to a musician, and they alternate gigs. “It takes a huge community to raise a theatre kid.” Loiselle, remembering all the babysitting favours from fellow actors, nods vigorously.

In Edmonton, Holt is staying with actor friends Jenny McKillop and Garett Ross, who co-starred in Outside Mullingar, the Irish play that ran at Shadow in March. On a recent weekend out of town, they left a life-sized cut-out of their Outside Mullingar characters in their spare room bed so Holt wouldn’t get lonely. Now, that’s a warm Edmonton connection.

Meanwhile, Holt and Loiselle are having fun together in the theatre. “Acting is my favourite,” says Loiselle. “I don’t like being the boss, and I end up having to be one,” she says of her other life as an artistic director. “It’s so nice to be in the ensemble.”

The other half of ‘the ensemble” notes, wryly, that they’re in a play that passes the Bechdel test — do the women characters talk to each other about something other than a man? — with flying colours. “We’re not fighting over a guy. Just his pension.”

Exit, laughing, to rehearsal.

PREVIEW

Fly Me To The Moon

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Marie Jones

Directed by: John Hudson

Starring: Elinor Holt, Annette Loiselle

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through May 13

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org

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