By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
If Lora Brovold and Collin Doyle, the real-life couple who star in Oh! Christmas Tree, have a special rapport with the characters in Conni Massing’s new comedy (opening Thursday at Theatre Network), it’s not surprising. They’ve been together for 18 years. They’ve had three Christmases together.
The pair are amply qualified, therefore, to empathize with Lucy and Algar, whose relationship, marriage-bound, has foundered on an obstacle: Christmas, the celebration and family traditions thereof, and the symbolic centre of it all: the tree.
The playwright and the director (Brian Deedrick) are immoderately amused and delighted by their casting coup. “In real life, they have something of the dynamic” of Lucy and Algar, says Massing of the couple, who made their way to a Strathcona coffee emporium to chat last weekend.
Moreover, for the theatre veterans to find themselves together onstage, for an entire play, and a Christmas play at that, defies history and probability in a striking way. They haven’t been onstage together for, well, years — 14, at least — since the premiere of Doyle and James Hamilton’s Nighthawk Rules at the Fringe of 2004, and, in a couple of fleeting scenes in Bedlam Theatre’s 25 Plays About Love a couple of years later. “We value theatre,” says Brovold cheerfully. “But we value our relationship more.”
“Conni persuaded me to persuade Collin,” grins Brovold. “And I was successful!” She remains somewhat amazed by this recruitment. For one thing, she forgot to tell him about it. “When I get busy I think I’ve said things, but only in my head.” For another, Doyle, an award-winning playwright (The Mighty Carlins, Terry and the Dog), works full-time as a TV technician at Global, on the 3 a.m. to 9 a.m. shift.
“I had conditions,” he says. “I have to start at this time and finish at that time. I can only do five hours rehearsal, and I can’t start till 2 in the afternoon…. Just so you know when we start this I don’t have a life. Working, rehearsing, sleeping, that’s it.” He grins ruefully. “I didn’t factor in time for learning lines.” Brovold laughs. “No, it’s not a movement piece!”
So here they are, against the odds, in the same city at Christmas, in the same Christmas play. And for once, Brovold, originally from Toronto, won’t be going back to her home town for Christmas as usual. She’s already feeling guilty. “My family have this incredible, unquestioned, expectation that I’ll always be home for Christmas,” she says. When I moved away to go to university (the U of A theatre school), I’d always go back, and they built this rhythm into their lives.… It’s become a ritual for them.” To make matters worse, her brother, an RCMP officer, will be in Nunavut.
Last time Brovold wasn’t home for Christmas, her mom phoned “every two hours on Christmas Day.” Doyle could hear the ruckus. “My mom was crying, my dad was yelling, my brother left the house…. Collin says it’s because I wasn’t there to do peace-keeping.”
“Lora’s family is great,” says Doyle. “Until you get them together in the same room. They feel they should be together at Christmas, but no one gets along.”
In the fraught realm of Christmas traditions, Brovold’s are exhausting. Her usual practice is “to spend Christmas Eve with Collin, then fly home at some crazy hour and get there Christmas morning, and then be back here for New Year’s Eve.”
Doyle stays here. For one thing, there are nieces and nephews, his brother’s kids. For another,work. “When I was a waiter or someone part-time, a week off was me not making any money, and we had none! Now it’s not wanting to take a week of my vacation….” Brovold teases. “I thought you said you don’t feel like spending Christmas Day hanging out with my dad in his underwear….There’s no cable, only three channels of fuzzy movies. They like to talk and snack. And Collin likes to read books.”
“There’s nowhere to escape to,” sighs Doyle. The Doyle Christmases have a pattern, too, but “it’s pretty laid back in comparison.” On Christmas Day, he has breakfast with his parents and his sister, then on to his brother’s place to open presents with the kids, then supper. “It’s watching TV, drinking, eating.”
It is perhaps revealing that the first Brovold/Doyle Christmas together, in 2013, before they got married that summer, was, to cut to the chase, a bust. Brovold, in her element, got “a beautiful ham, with a recipe off the internet that was actually good.” Doyle was deathly ill, with pneumonia. At the fateful dinner hour, he staggered out of bed, and half a tin of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup later, returned to it.
“Why did I get such a big ham? What was I thinking?” says Brovold. “Christmas dinner is a meal on steroids….”
When you’re in a theatrical production sharing the stage with nine trees, it’s possible that the tannenbaum novelty might wear off by the 25th of December. Last weekend Brovold and Doyle didn’t have their tree up yet, but they will.
Brovold is adamant. “my first year of living in Edmonton, when I knew I’d really moved here, I bought a tree on Boxing Day…. I needed to know that I can have a tree during during December.” Her cats were small enough to sit on the branches. That tree is 15 years old now, “and no longer an environmental faux pas.”
“We do the traditional taking-down of the tree — in April,” says Doyle rolling his eyes. Says Brovold, “I aim for Valentine’s Day. But if I get busy, it might be Easter and time for the Resurrection.”
Thinking there was a shortage of photos of them together, one year Brovold took a photo of Doyle in the Citadel production of Wit and stuck it in a Christmas ornament on the tree, with a photo of her in another. His reaction? “What the hell is that? Get rid of it!” And his family reacted in similar fashion: “why are you on the tree?” Brovold laughs. “My family would be ‘awww, that’s so sweet, you guys on the tree together!’”
Yes, the Doyles do not seem to be a family awash in sentimentality. “If we’ve learned anything from The Mighty Carlins (Doyle’s very black comedy about a dysfunctional family reunion), it’s that,” says Brovold wryly. “Their sharing circle went so well!”
Brovold “loves shopping for people, giving little gifts, wrapping presents so they’re a feast for the eyes.” The “sumptuous” is something that’s missing in our lives most of the time. Doyle is amused. “I have to appreciate the wrapping first….”
She does concede that festive rituals are largely self-generated, and pressurizing. “Even if we’re just hanging out, eating chopped vegetable and sour cream dip, and a cheese ball, it’s THE Christmas cheeseball…. What was happenstance at the time becomes a tradition. Because we did it once, suddenly it’s a thing.”
I didn’t dare ask whether Oh! Christmas Tree might be year #1 of a tradition.
Conni Massing talks to 12thnight.ca about the real-life inspiration for Oh! Christmas Tree. Read it here.
Oh! Christmas Tree
Roxy Performance Series
Theatre: Blunt Entertainment and Theatre of the New Heart
Written by: Conni Massing
Directed by: Brian Deedrick
Starring: Lora Brovold, Collin Doyle
Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: through Dec. 23
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca