Theatre takes to the trenches: Neil Grahn’s The Comedy Company. A review

Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Steven Greenfield, Jesse Gervais in The Comedy Company, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2018

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“And make it funny!” barks the Major at the soldier.   

And so it starts, the remarkable true Canadian story that comes to life in Neil Grahn’s The Comedy Company. The new play by a writer with a blue-chip pedigree in comedy is getting a Shadow Theatre premiere directed by John Hudson and timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

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It’s a comedy about comedy, or more precisely, about the link between comedy and tragedy. In Ypres, Belgium in 1916 laughter is in tough.

Amidst a nightmare of unremitting horrors, members of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry were ordered by their commander Major Agar Adamson (Julien Arnold) to create a musical comedy entertainment, something “light-hearted!” to boost morale amongst the fighting men.

Steven Greenfield, Sheldon Elter, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Jesse Gervais in The Comedy Company. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2018

Some of the funniest scenes of Grahn’s episodic storytelling involve theatrical recruitment, auditions, brainstorming under these dark circumstances. Seven of Edmonton’s most watchable actors create individual characters, and cohere into a true ensemble. Jack McLaren, who has an appealing kind of wry, dry, sassy quality to him in Andrew MacDonald-Smith’s performance, has landed the task of casting. “Hey, would you guys like to be in a show?” He’s greeted by a certain skepticism-unto-incredulity by his battle-ravaged mates. “You have that showbiz je ne sais quoi,” he tells one, puckishly. He tells another “you have a certain star quality.”

Lilly, who has an amusingly guileless charm in Sheldon Elter’s performance, is susceptible to the lure of theatre. Fenwick (Steven Greenfield), on the other hand, earnestly resists, on the grounds that it would be shirking front line duty. He’s only persuaded by the thought that the better the group morale the more Germans they’ll kill.

The hardest sell of all is Cunningham (Jesse Gervais), furiously unsmiling and on a short fuse; Gervais is very funny as the soldier without a sense of humour and no sympathy whatsoever for theatrical pursuits (naturally, he’s made director, a theatre joke in itself). “ALL RIGHT,” he bellows, glaring at his cast-mates. “Who’s got a funny idea?” He’s deadpan on legs.

In a surprising story, the most surprising character of all is the Major, one Agar Adamson (Julien Arnold in full blustery bristle), who in the middle of the bloodiest, most devastating war in history takes it into his head to create a company to do original musical comedy revues. It’s an unexpected inspiration from a man who in every other way seems to be a conventional Edwardian military aristocrat who arrives in the 20th century trailing accoutrements from the 19th.

Under the rallying cry “Comedy For Killing,” collective creation and “amateur” theatre have never been more fraught. And Grahn makes full comic use of classic theatre frictions. When it comes time to assign the cross-dressing part — there has to be a leading lady — the discussion that ensues is riotous. Fractious cast discussions about who’s prettier (Greenfield’s Fenwick wins) will crack you up: Grahn has a flair for pursuing a comic idea through dialogue.

It’s a matter of gallows humour that the opening night of the new comedy company is approached by the cast with as much dread as going into battle: “Into the theatre of death rode Jack McLaren….”  A piano player (Nick Samoil) magically appears at the last possible moment.

The audience, fresh from the Battle of Mount Sorrel, is hostile and truculent, to say the least. A drill sergeant (Nathan Cuckow, in one of his many roles) takes charge of discipline: “We’re ordered to enjoy the show! Whether we like it or not!” he snaps. It’s the “girl” and the satirical barbs at their own military leadership that win over the crowd. The Princess Patricia’s have a hit . And they’re ordered to take it on the road. Touring the Western Front with a musical comedy sounds like a punch line in itself.

The Comedy Company, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

The visuals are eloquent and have a kind of blasted beauty to them. Designer Alison Yanota’s set, beautifully lit in sepia shadows, is crossed by the brutal diagonal slice of a trench and overhung with tattered shards of gauze (bandages?) on which Matt Schuurman’s vintage projections play. Dave Clarke’s soundtrack of artillery and machine gun fire, and explosions, is a background roar and percussion track that reminds you of the strange context for comedy. And the historical narrative is peppered by last-minute cancellations when the cast gets called away to fight in some of the most gruesome forays of the war, including Vimy Ridge.

Grahn’s script takes its cue from this — it counterpoints musical and comedy numbers and the backstage brouhaha with battle scenes and moments when the characters step forward to deliver thoughts about an apocalyptic war  and their part in it. Occasionally these latter moments seem a little contrived and unnecessary given the nuances of the acting ensemble and the context served up by the battle sequences and the production design. A scene in which a commander praises the new comedy initiative for galvanizing his burnt-out men into continuing the fight, for example, seems directly lifted from research. So do the characters’ reflections on the extreme challenge of wresting comedy from tragedy. We’re actually seeing that happen before our eyes, anyhow.    

World War I ditties from the trenches (arranger Robert Walsh) like “we’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here….” (sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne) or “hangin’ on the ol’ barbed wire” (to the tune of “someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah”) nail the sense of existential absurdity that hangs over unimaginable devastation. 

Comedy doesn’t devalue tragedy, says this vivid new Canadian play spun from our own history. It understands tragedy in a different way.

Meet the playwright: 12thnight.ca talks to Neil Grahn here.  

REVIEW

The Comedy Company

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Neil Grahn

Directed by: John Hudson

Starring: Julien Arnold, Nathan Cuckow, Sheldon Elter, Jesse Gervais, Steven Greenfield, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Nick Samoil,

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Nov. 11

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org

   

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