By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“I grew up with the kindest, cleverest, and most beautiful elder sisters in the country; and with the loudest, silliest, and prettiest younger sisters in the country,” says Mary, in the romantic comedy that brings a Christmas tree onto the Citadel’s Shoctor stage starting Thursday.
“This left few fair adjectives for me. I find I still suffer from lack of definition….” Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, the 2016 seasonal hit that made Lauren Gunderson the continent’s most-produced playwright last year, is all about correcting that.
You can see what Mary is up against. She’s the middle child in the volatile five-daughter Bennet household set forth in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s sharp-eyed 1813 comic masterwork. And in a novel where matchmaking is not just an pastime but an obsession — and the romantic fortunes of the second daughter Elizabeth, one of the literature’s most spirited, witty heroines, are the headliner — bookish Mary, “the only plain one in the family,” doesn’t get much ink.
Unless you’re a hard-core Jane-ite, you might have to do a mental head-count to even remember there’s a Mary, much less appreciate her. “She’s almost non-existent,” laughs Mikaela Davies, who plays Mary in Nancy McAlear’s production of this “sequel” to Pride and Prejudice. “But in a way, by being so rigorous, so studious, so practical, she shows the lightness and the joy and the charm of all the other women.”
Miss Bennet, the title a pointed reference to the spinster prospects of the family nerd, rediscovers the characters two years after the happily-ever-afters in which Lizzie and Mr. Darcy finally overcome pride and prejudice and end up together. It’s at their grand estate the Bennet sisters have reassembled for the holidays. And it’s Mr. Darcy who first twigs to the dramatic blossoming of Mary, once dismissed by everyone as dull and “pedantic.”
When we meet Mary at Pemberley she’s witty and sharp, but not a Lizzie-in-the-making, thinks Davies. “She’s different. Mary dreams big, and not just big for herself but in a world picture way as well.” In favouring honesty over politeness, “there’s a certain practicality that lack’s the woman’s charm that Lizzie has” in such generous measure.
The Montreal-born, Toronto-based Davies, in person highly articulate, smart, and spirited, is in a position to appreciate those original and renegade qualities in characters like Mary. Her multi-limbed career since Dawson College theatre school has branched out from acting, to directing and theatre creation.
She arrives in Edmonton, for her first time, from three seasons at Stratford. In two she was an actor. Most recently, she was assistant director to the star director/actor/playwright Robert Lepage — “he has a divided career too!” — in rehearsing his production of Coriolanus. Davies was impressed. “It was fascinating,” she says. “He ran a really beautiful open rehearsal room, very free. And there didn’t seem to be much hierarchy. He’s very funny, self-deprecating…. His power to tell stories through bodies is really unparalleled.”
In Davies’ second Stratford season, she’d starred in Jackie Maxwell’s production of the lurid, blood-spattered 17th century play The Changeling, in which the heroine hires an assassin to ice her fiancé. In Breath of Kings, Stratford’s six-hour cross-gender adaptation of Shakespeare history plays, Davies played both Catherine of France and the Dauphin.
Gender and casting across that divide is a subject that interests Davies. “Some actors do the chameleon work of changing genders. And there’s a lot good to be said about that. Other times — and this is a personal preference in my own work; many would disagree — it’s changing the pronouns. And there’s a wonderful middle ground where you’re just telling the story and the actors are instruments….”
Davies sees the changing of “he” to “she” as an act with political resonances. “When you see a woman playing a man dressed as a man, and using the pronoun ‘he’, you’re saying that for a woman to be powerful, to be a leader, to have 17 monologues, she needs to be a man…. Women do have power in the world, and (by using ‘she’) you’re embracing it. And now, let’s get back to the story.”
As she tells it, in droll fashion, Davies was always the kid with a certain indie creative streak. “‘Devised theatre’ for five-year-olds,” she laughs. “I was supposed to play a queen,” she remembers, “and two or three weeks into our ‘rehearsal process’, the teacher told another girl she could also be the queen. I knew it wouldn’t make sense to have two, and I remember thinking ‘oh no, there’s no place for me’. So on the day of the performance I refused to come down.”
“Some would say ‘diva in the making’,” Davies grins. “I would argue for a really strong sense of dramaturgical structure.”
That came in handy, for a director in the making. After theatre school I wasn’t getting acting work and I didn’t want to not be an artist,” says Davies. So at 21 she added directing and producing to her skill set. Her creative partnership with Polly Phokeev, which has resulted in such innovative work as their site-specific series How We Are (it played in random bedrooms on the Danforth), dates from the two years Davies spent in the Soulpepper Academy. Phokeev writes; Davies directs; they “co-develop” work. In progress is a new musical, spun from the Mikhail Bulgakov novel The Master and Margarita.
Davies wouldn’t call herself a playwright. “I’m a storyteller,” she says simply. “I create stories, characters, conflicts, drama, human moments. I think I’m quite good at that….” She even created, directed and performed a solo show about her own life. “But I work best with other people.”
Soulpepper is why Davies moved to Toronto from Montreal. And that’s where she made her professional debut in Idiot’s Delight, as half of a young lovestruck honeymoon couple. Eight more Soulpepper productions followed, which paired Davies and her fellow Academy actors with company veterans onstage in season offerings. “Amazing!” she says of the learning experience.
At a company that impaled itself in horrifying fashion on the thorny issue of sexual harassment — including the substantiated allegations that resulted in Soulpepper cutting all ties with Hungarian director Laszlo Marton in the fall of 2017 — Davies also found a dark side. And she stepped bravely forward, despite her fears about an emerging theatre career, to shed light on it. Witness her thoughtful, beautifully written and argued op-ed piece for the Globe and Mail last March (read it here), about the experience of being silenced by a non-disclosure agreement, and emerging from it. It’s been a tumultuous year for Davies, and she has high hopes for the new Soulpepper regime.
On the descriptive ‘brave’, Davies hesitates. “If bravery means doing things in spite of fear, then perhaps…. I think I can get very scared.” She finds Mary “remarkably brave, in searching for something more than society is willing to provide her.”
“It’s not just love,” says Davies, though the Miss Bennet story provides that possibility in the form of the awkward fellow nerd Arthur DeBourgh). “She wants more! It’s about a woman feeling stuck, and wanting something beyond social, cultural, and family expectations. That hasn’t gone away.”
And how’s this for brave? When Mary sits down at the piano and plays the Moonlight Sonata at critical junctures, you’ll be hearing Davies really playing … “and I’m not that good!” Davies laughs.
“I used to play the piano as a kid, and that was one of the pieces I kept up.” There was a confidence-sapping setback: Davies discovered it isn’t the lyrical first moment with the theme everyone knows; it’s the fast and fiendish third. Davies rented a place here with a piano, and the Citadel gave her a practice room. Director McAlear has assured her that it doesn’t have to be note-perfect to land the moment. “But it makes me terribly nervous. I want it to be good — for Mary’s sake!”
“It’s special to take a character who’s a linchpin in her own way but is given so little time, and see how she blossoms, who she is now, how she thinks, how she sees the world, what she craves.”
After Christmas, Davies heads to Stratford for a four-day workshop of The Neverending Story (she’s Jillian Keiley’s associate director), then back to her home town to act in The Last Wife at the Centaur, her Montreal debut. Meanwhile there’s the fun of a holiday-humour show.
You don’t need to have read Pride and Prejudice to enjoy the show, Davies assures. “But for anyone who knows the story, there is something so satisfying in seeing where the characters are now…. What happens in happily-ever-after stories? Are they divorced? Are things working out? Are they miserable? To be brought back into one of the most famous worlds in all of literature is a gift!”
“Where there are interesting artists and interesting stories to tell, I want to be there.”
Stay tuned for a 12thnight.ca interview of director Nancy McAlear.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
Written by: Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Directed by: Nancy McAlear
Starring: Mikaela Davies, Umed Amin, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Emma Houghton, Mathew Hulshof, Cameron Kneteman, Emma Laishram, Gianna Vacirca
Running: Thursday through Dec. 9
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com