By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, an Allied team of World War II super-warriors are recruited and trained, each with a specialty in the stealth warrior skill set. And then they’re unleashed behind enemy lines on a formidable foe. Their secret against-the-odds mission: To save the world.
They are all women.
In Catalyst Theatre’s stunning, strongly sung new musical, that gives every classic scene of all-for-one camaraderie, every fierce declaration of intent or acknowledgment of risk, a particular lustre.
In France 1940, this international band of elite secret agents — imagined by playwright/ composer/ lyricist/ director Jonathan Christenson and designer Bretta Gerecke from Churchill’s real-life secret SOE (Special Operations Executives) — are up against not only the Third Reich but the skeptical male establishment of their own country.
The so-called “weaker sex” — the followers, the stay-at-homes, the pep talkers, the second string — rise up to “fight back,” as one of Christenson’s early songs has it. As blood bombs spatter on a close-up sepia map of London on the back wall, the characters sing “can you imagine…?” and “all we thought was good is gone” and “would you just stand by?”
Newly re-worked from its Calgary premiere incarnation at Vertigo Theatre, The Invisible, with its compelling espionage teamwork story spun from real life history and its melodic score, arrives onstage with Catalyst’s startling signature high-style theatricality. Musical invention (Christenson), sound design (Matthew Skopyk), and detailed physical movement (choreographer Laura Krewski) are married seamlessly to Gerecke’s flamboyantly theatrical visual imagery.
An ingenious combo of dazzling noir-ish lighting and projections (redolent both of the period and of captioned graphic novels) make it possible to tell a story of wartime action heroes crossing the Channel by air or blowing up trains in northern France — on a stage that’s bare save for a dozen or so wooden chairs, and overhung with more. The chairs seem to come to life narratively, glowing in outline to conjure the characters who occupy them.
The Invisible is a story of secrecy, subversion, and espionage, spies in an encoded world of fathomless darkness and pinpoints of light, or on a grid like runway lights during a black-out. They step from one pool of light to another. Sometimes they’re half-lit by the eerie glow of the moon. Sometimes they vanish into a murky dark. “Nothing is seen, nothing is heard…. Here today, gone tonight,” as one ensemble number has it. Gerecke’s lighting is an active participant in that story.
As you gradually discover, in Christenson’s book and musical numbers (more varied in style than ever before in a Catalyst musical), the secret agents are distinct individuals. And the group dynamic is not without its tensions. At the centre of the operation, leader of “my girls,” is Evelyn, a wary Romanian-born spymaster based on the alluringly elusive historical figure of Vera Atkins. She’s played by the excellent Melissa MacPherson with a steely glint, a pack-a-day throaty voice, and the fierce, sultry edginess of a Marlene Dietrich.
A silhouette of Evie smoking against a blood-red moon is a fleeting whiff of James Bond. So, is she “M”? The nightmare Romanian tale that opens the evening — skeletons, buckets of blood, ghostly voices, a severed hand — belongs to her memory bank. And it says No.
Evelyn “tells” the story of The Invisible from her memory of a fraught time. She’s the brains behind her boss, an upper-class twit played to perfection by Kristi Hansen when she’s not being Dot, an amputee who’s always been denied opportunity to use her strategist’s smarts by her disability. She’s the most primly English of the international band of recruits.
There are exotic immigrants on the team, each with a specialty and a solo number. Christenson’s is a cast of very accomplished singers, who easily embrace his array of musical styles.
Jacqueline (Melanie Piatocha) is a crack sniper, who gets a lovely nostalgic number, a bit Vera Lynn, about England (the English rose) and France (the French lily). Anna (Marie Mahabal), a south Asian, is an expert code-breaker — with an operatic voice that shines in a passionate number about the price tag on human sacrifice. The Polish-born Charlie (Justine Westby) is on damage control. There’s a Senegalese-Parisian courtesan-turned-chanteuse Maddie (Tara Jackson, whom we last saw knocking it out of the park as Celie in The Color Purple), who specializes in insinuating herself into male environments. She gets a fetchingly playful and sexy jazz number. And Amanda Trapp is Betty, a Canadian Cree with a knack for explosives, who knows something, as she says, about living under occupying forces.
There are rhythmic multi-syllabic chants (a Christenson favourite). There are wistful ballads and juicy ones, French chansons, a Weill-esque cabaret number, and intense odes of solidarity. The Invisible is perhaps Christenson’s richest song score yet. And the suspense attached to a dangerous espionage mission story pulses ahead in Skopyk’s sound score. The music is played live by a versatile onstage three-piece band (Christina Cuglietta, Stephanie Urquhart, Tatiana Zagorac).
It’s a fascinating story and homage to unseen heroism that comes to life, propelled by thoughts that the course of history can be changed by passion, will, and teamwork. Sounds a lot like theatre, come to think of it.
The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare
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: through Feb. 23