By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
A cultural theory: There’s a kind of crazy total-immersion charge about the Fringe that’s a magnet to Edmonton theatre artists. It explains why veteran Edmonton theatre pros — Bradley Moss, Trevor Schmidt, Darrin Hagen, Dave Horak, Collin Doyle, Kate Ryan, Cat Walsh, Chris Bullough, Stewart Lemoine, the list goes on… — are still up for doing the Edmonton Fringe after so many summers of kissing summer holidays goodbye. And it explains why up-and-comers are keen to be there too, in a big way.
We meet two directors — young but with startlingly hefty and adventurous credits already — each making their Fringe debuts with not one, but two high-contrast productions. Both Michael Bradley and Suzie Martin entered the world of theatre via acting; both are recent U of A directing grads.
This Fringe Michael Bradley ricochets between realism and a crazier, more playful version of “reality.”
Some days the Kingston native who arrived here from the working actor’s life in Toronto, directs rehearsals for a serious new drama, Liane Faulder’s Walk, in which a Canadian soldier and his family struggle to recover themselves and their equilibrium after he loses his legs in Afghanistan. On alternate days, he’s in another theatrical universe altogether: reclaiming Steve Martin’s quirky dark-hued satire WASP, which targets ‘50s suburbia and all its white middle-class capitalist privilege.
Bradley, an artist of the exploratory stripe whose work includes theatre creation and research, has U of A directing credits that include his own adaptations of Hamlet and Ibsen’s The Lady From The Sea. A workshop to investigate power and gender in Richard III is upcoming, in the fall.
There was a personal resonance for Bradley in Walk, which marks the playwriting debut of veteran journalist Faulder (she fashioned it from her non-fiction book The Long Walk Home): the world of the soldier. “I come from a family of soldiers and retired soldiers,” Bradley says. His grandfather was a soldier. His father served in Afghanistan, the regiment sergeant major at the base. there. His brother-in-law is a soldier; he and Bradley’s dad were in Afghanistan at the same time in 2006.
The military life “is an important part of the Canada of now,” muses Bradley. “But it doesn’t seem to be part of our arts conversations.… In America, it’s part of the conversation all the time.”
The lives of soldiers, fraught as they are, come wrapped in a carapace of secrets. “They’re a mysterious group of people,” says Bradley. As he points out, his father would have known, and well, every soldier who was injured or killed in his time there. “It just doesn’t come up that much…. The play has been a way of getting to know the people I know, from another avenue.”
He’s “very conscious” of Walk’s exploration of “how veterans are when they come home. I like this play for that…. Fictionalizing (the true-life story of amputee soldier Paul Franklin in Faulder’s journalistic book) gives us a more complicated relationship with the characters.”
Casting came with its own challenges, of course. Faulder and Bradley launched an international campaign to find an amputee actor. Theatre has a history of know-how in faking it. “But for me, it was important to present something so truthful with no layer of theatrical artifice,” says Bradley. And in the end, he thinks, “it’s not about amputation any more, or even PTSD. It’s about a family….”
After casting the net widely, he and the playwright settled on an actor who was not a double-amputee. Ben Proulx, who comes to live theatre from the world of stand-up comedy (with occasional forays into television) lost one of his legs to childhood cancer at three. So Faulder re-worked the Walk story to embrace a soldier who’s lost one leg and is in grave danger of losing the other to critical injury.
And there’s been a gender adjustment. In Bradley’s production, the soldier’s fellow Afghanistan vet is played by a female, actor, Bevin Dooley, a playwright/ dramaturg herself. It’s “a wonderful way to acknowledge female presence in military life,” says Bradley. We can be more nuanced in our storytelling….”
As for WASP, a 1995 Steve Martin play of the absurdist stripe discovered by Bradley’s actor wife Nicole St. Martin a decade ago, Bradley is fascinated by its currency, the way it captures “the creepy nostalgia” of Trumpian America for the storied ‘50s when America allegedly was great and middle-class white privilege had legs. “It speaks about the strange sense of disenfranchisement from the inside.”
“People! This is not real! What is this thing you think you remember? It’s nostalgia for an illusion. It’s dark and getting darker.”
Walk runs Fri. through Aug. 26 at Fringe stage 17, The Roxy on Gateway. WASP runs Thurs. through August 26 at Fringe stage 5, King Edward Elementary School.