Catalyst’s new musical takes us into the girls’ club of elite secret agents. Meet the creators of The Invisible

Melissa MacPherson (centre) and the company of The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Catalyst Theatre. Photo by Citrus Photography.

By Liz Nicholls,

Espionage: Upstagers and exhibitionists need not apply. 

In the long-awaited new Catalyst musical that finally gets its Edmonton debut Friday on the Maclab stage, we infiltrate a shadowy, high-risk world of wartime spies where the job is all about non-presence — fitting in, fading outlines, covering tracks, vanishing into the landscape. And for invisibility, who better than women?

The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, the latest from the award-winning Catalyst team of playwright/ composer/ lyricist/ director Jonathan Christenson and designer Bretta Gerecke (Frankenstein, Nevermore, Hunchback and others), is unspooled from World War II history. Its source is the team of valiant female operatives sent behind enemy lines into the France of 1940 on life-and-death missions of sabotage, espionage, and propaganda.

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When Christenson, Catalyst’s artistic director, forever on the outlook for “stories with a Canadian connection but international resonances,” ran across The Man Called Intrepid, a first-hand memoir by Canadian-born agent William Stephenson, he was intrigued. That was two years ago, and Christenson followed that thread to the top-secret Special Operations Executive (“Churchill’s Secret Army”) that recruited and trained an elite corps of women agents and sent them into Europe and Asia.

Melissa MacPherson in The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Catalyst Theatre. Photo by Citrus.

It was among the international contingent of 50 women — American, British, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Indian, Romanian — recruited for the French section that Christenson found the characters for The Invisible. Some are based on real women. Melissa MacPherson, for example, plays Evelyn Ash, inspired by the Romanian-born spymaster Vera Atkins, the assistant to the head (male, of course) of SOE and in charge of female recruits. As a diehard anglophile, “more British than the British” as MacPherson says, Atkins was  likely the inspiration for Miss Moneypenny of James Bond fame. Others are fictionalized composites.

Designer Gerecke, who’s always part of the Catalyst creative process from the inception of the project, says “what fascinated me was the way that women work as spies, the way we’re tuned to glean information, and how different that is from the way men operate.… Men are built to fight; women are built to navigate danger.”

The stereotype is the seductress “to whom men tell all their secrets, on the pillow,” as Gerecke puts it. That’s not the kind of female spy at play in The Invisible. Gerecke cites the agent who rode her bike in France, everywhere unchallenged. “She was invisible; people just ignored her because everyone thought she was a kid.”

Who were they, these unsung unseen heroes, women who risked everything for the greater good at a crucial moment in history? “What struck me,” says Christenson, “is that they were all outsiders, women who didn’t fit the mould, or who weren’t ready to be contained by the mould. They were all women who wanted more — either accidentally or they were born that way.”

“They were self-defining women, all such strong personalities. And in the world we live in, it’s easy to subvert that in order to fit in.”

“It gave (normal) women the opportunity to be extraordinary,” says MacPherson. “Who knows what would have happened if the war hadn’t come along?….” For Evelyn, the galvanizing motive is “being a woman in a man’s world. And she was an advocate: she made sure the girls got paid, for example.” After the war she made a point of trying to locate all the women who had disappeared in the course of their espionage work, and to have them recognized, dead or alive. “She found all but one.”

Melissa MacPherson in The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Catalyst Theatre. Photo by Citrus.

Christenson calls The Invisible “a memory play,” and Evelyn, whose story is the centre of  the narrative arc, “a tortured, haunted figure.” She’s encircled by the kind of controversies that accrue when decisions are difficult, the double-cross cedes to the triple, and individual sacrifices are made for a larger cause. For Evelyn, says MacPherson, the play is “an exercise in atonement…. She’s telling her story, and then re-living it, recognizing her mistakes, her own fallibility.”

The agents were “a best-of team,” Gerecke emphasizes. “As in the best teams, all (the members) have different strengths; they’re stronger as a team than as individuals.” One was a virtuoso sniper; one a demolition expert.… They’re from very different backgrounds, with very different reasons for being with the team.

Christenson composed music with that diversity in mind. “Some of the numbers are inspired by the period, and each character has a moment to shine, musically (accompanied by the live onstage three-piece all-female band) …. One women is a Parisian chanteuse who gets a showy jazz/swing number, in keeping with the period but with a contemporary edge to it. Another song has a more German cabaret-style flavour. There’s musical theatre; there are pop and rock influences,” and a “contemporary opera-ish” number (adds Gerecke). 

No matter what their configuration, the repertoire of original Catalyst musicals is notable for the sophisticated ways in which, in sight and sound, they’re both of their period and contemporary. They rise from the page. “Frankenstein is a great novel,” grins Christenson. “But it’s a slog (to read).” “As is Hunchback,” says Gerecke. “Weirdly, we’ve been truest to period in this one.” And, after all, World War II is less than a century ago, “only a generation away.” 

“It’s about creating points of connection between each of the characters and the audience. You want them to invest early. And if the language is distancing, it takes so much longer to find those points of connection.”

Once they’d found their story, Christenson and Gerecke immersed themselves in research, a solid diet of spy novels for the former, spy movies for the latter. A year ago, writing started in earnest. The Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare met their first public at Keyano College in Fort McMurray last spring, and premiered in fuller form in the Vertigo Theatre season in Calgary (where the show received a record nine Betty Award nominations and won three).

In the meantime, Christenson, whose Catalyst m.o. is to regard every incarnation of a show as “a draft,” to be tinkered with and improved, has done some re-writing for the Edmonton premiere. And Gerecke has set about “taking the next step with projections … building a closer relationship between projected text/image and the performers.” 

The Invisible is not film noir in its storytelling, Gerecke says of the visuals. “It’s not that ‘half-light on a half-face under a bridge’ kind of show.” She laughs. “I went through a whole phase of being obsessed with mirrors — how  you can hide people and they appear somewhere else and they couldn’t have gone from here to there.” She tried mirrors on the ceiling to reflect the floor so that everything seemed to be happening on the vertical axis. That idea ended up in the reject bin, and she moved on.

What struck her about spy movies was the way they manage surprises, and “always catch you off-guard.” In the new musical, with its agents who appear and disappear in always surprising ways, “the set doesn’t create magical things; magic happens through sound, music, lighting, projections.” 

Melissa MacPherson in The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Catalyst Theatre. Photo by Citrus.

Playing with the idea of super-heroes took the pair into the realm of graphic novels. “We’ve been fascinated by graphic novel imagery and illustration, how to dial that into projections and have performers connect to text above them, behind them, appearing to come from them,” says Gerecke. Christenson says “we’ve been trying to find a theatrical vocabulary for that trope, for a balance between real-life women on one hand and something larger than just themselves on the other….” 

Christenson sighs. “It’s easy for us to forget the work that others who went before us did to make the world we live in possible.” The Invisible, he says, “is about honouring that…. People have been involved in the struggle for a fairer, more just, more inclusive world for hundreds of years. Their work paves the way for us to take the next step forward. ”

The women of The Invisible “live at a time with limited options…. They had to work ten times harder than men in the same roles would have…. I hope people leave The Invisible inspired by their stories, by their spirit of resistance, by the work they did to create a better world.” Says Gerecke, “to be energized to make change….” 

“War stories are mostly the territory of men…. Women are either victimized or left on the margins to deal with the fall-out,” says Christenson. “Telling a story where women are heroes not victims feels different,” Gerecke says. As MacPherson puts it, “these were (seven) women who worked in a covert way and remained that way.”

The slide towards a world that is morally untenable seems to be gaining momentum at the moment. Is it the sense that history is rolling backwards?  “You wake up one day and Trump just got elected president. And you ask how could that happen,” says Christenson. “And the answer is ‘it’s been happening for a long time’.” The real question of The Invisible, he says, “is one I’ve never had to ask myself before…. What would you risk your life for? How far would you have to be pushed before you step up and fight?”


The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Theatre: Catalyst

Created by: Jonathan Christenson (book, music, lyrics) and Bretta Gerecke (design)

Starring: Melissa MacPherson, Kristi Hansen, Tara Jackson, Marie Mahabal, Melanie Piatocha, Amanda Trapp, Justine Westby

Where: Maclab Theatre, in the Citadel complex

Running: Friday through Feb. 23


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