By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
If there ever was a dramatic testimonial to theatre as a collaborative art form, in the grand odds-against “show must go on” tradition, it’s got to be the back story of The Great Whorehouse Fire of 1921, premiering against all probability at the Fringe Friday (Stage 1 (Old Strathcona Public Library). Catastrophe, suspense, resourcefulness, and generosity are all involved. Also, painkillers.
The play, by David Cheoros and Linda Wood Edwards — of MAA & PAA Theatre and Northern Sabbatical Productions respectively — reimagines a fascinating piece of our history. In Big Valley, AB, 1921, an entrpreneurial madame (Sue Huff) starts a brothel. An upright Christian woman (Linda Grass) runs a local boarding house. And, fictionalized by the play, the former strikes up an unlikely friendship with the latter. The brothel burned to the ground on Dec. 26, 1921 and although no charges were laid, the speculation is that townspeople were responsible.
Which brings us to the terrible events of the beginning of August 2018 when Huff developed a scary mysterious ailment, with paralyzing instant-rheumatoid arthritis-type symptoms, and was rushed to Emergency. This crisis was discovered to be Reiter’s Syndrome, a rare condition which most people have never even heard of. And, as Huff says, “for a week I was completely incapacitated, on heavy pain meds and anti inflammatories, and feeling worse by the day. Although the cast and crew were amazing and supportive (rewrites, adjustments, even working out alternate blocking where I never leave a chair)…I was really wondering if I could do the show.”
Enter Andrea House. She’s the strikingly multi-talented actor/ playwright/ singer-songwriter who created Sweethearts of the 49th, premiering at the Fringe (Stage 39, CKUA Performance Space), with House’s daughter Etta in the cast. And House is also in the cast of The Soldier’s Tale, the adventurous Alberta premiere of the multi-disciplinary collaboration between C.F. Ramuz and the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. And she’s also a gifted (and very busy) acupuncturist.
“And she does house calls!” says Huff. “In between her own Fringe rehearsals, a full-time job and kids, she found time to come to my house and suss out the mess I was in! In addition to providing treatment, she also pinpointed that the underlying gastro infection which triggered the syndrome was still active. She confirmed my hunch that many of the side effects I was experiencing were due to the opioids and basically turned the whole boat around for me…. Andrea was able to do what no one else has: sort through the myriad of symptoms and find the epicentre. She was also able to restore my faith that I will get better (Reiter’s Syndrome can take up to a year to resolve completely).”
House told her, “You will do the show. You will probably have a limp and need a cane, but we will get you there!”
By Aug. 5, Huff reports that “we did the photo shoot for our show today at my house and with a lot of help and patience, I was able to sit in chair for 45 minutes!! We did all the pics from the waist up, so the knee wasn’t visible. Watching me come down the stairs, on my butt, at a snail’s pace was a sight and there were lots of nervous jokes about having me inch on stage this way.”
Things have gotten slowly better. “The show must go on” has become “the show will go on (dammit)!” The production has been completely re-blocked so Huff can play Madame Hastings from a chair. “Lots of Fringe love!” says Huff, who describes her character as “a wonderful mixture of bravado and insecurities … smart, funny, manipulative, shrewd, and at times petty and petulant.”