By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
With the production that reopened the Mayfield Dinner theatre for real-live audiences this week (for a six-week run), hockey doesn’t just pirouette around theatre. No, there’s a bone-rattling full bodycheck into the boards.
And there are boards. Ron Jenkins’ vivid production of Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story may be a solo show. But up on (real) skates on (real, fake) ice at the rink, armed with powerful storytelling, Shaun Smyth delivers the kind of compelling performance that conjures a world and knocks you back in your seat.
Ah, and speaking of seats…. They’re two-thirds out of commission. The fans, who must be masked when they aren’t seated, are much reduced in number, as per COVID safety restrictions. In a 450-seat house, an audience of 150 or so sits away from the stage at distanced tables and every second banquette, the tiers in the raked house separated by plexiglass shields taller than me (and I’m 5’9). Hockey meets COVID in a show where the plexiglass barriers make narrative sense; ditto the rule about “a hockey stick length” between people. The signature buffet has been replaced by table service.
And here’s a first for dinner theatre: we rise for the national anthem, with that retro crackle that every hockey fan will instantly recognize. Matthew Skopyk’s soundscape, which includes that tinny arena reverb, a percussion of pucks against the boards, and sirens and all that, is just right.
Playing With Fire is widely travelled since its 2012 premiere at Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects (I saw it at the Citadel in 2015). But, as its name will suggest, it’s an adventurous choice for dinner theatre, where the musical revue is monarch of the box office. But then the Mayfield under Van Wilmott is nothing if not theatrically adventurous. Witness full-bodied musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, Cabaret among them) in the Mayfield archive, or full-bodied straight plays, among them intricate farces like Lend Me A Tenor or Noises Off.
Still, even for Edmonton’s horizon-expanding dinner theatre Playing With Fire is an unusual season-opener. It skates full-speed towards tragedy in its story of the mouthy prairie kid from Russell, Man. with big talent and big dreams — and the big nightmare that corrodes both.
As recorded in the memoir he co-wrote with playwright Kirstie McLellan Day, Theo Fleury’s story chronicles the tumultuous life of a small kid from a chaotic family who discovers his own exceptional gifts — and joy — at the rink, age six. “I belonged somewhere for the first time. I was home.” And he escapes from his “shitty childhood” of neglect only to skate headlong into another kind of darkness, his boyhood victimization by Western Hockey League coach Graham James. The fallout of that horror story of sexual abuse was the secret that haunted him for years, threatened him, and nearly destroyed his career, his identity, his life.
As Smyth conveys from the first second, the hockey player we meet at centre ice at the outset is a knowing guy, with a kind of captivating good humour about him. “I know why you’re here,” he grins, nailing our morbid curiously about “a sports superstar behaving very very badly.” He knows that we know the celebrity status of a flame-out that was nothing short of spectacular. “How the fuck can you spend $50 million?” he asks us, cutting to the chase, in a chatty blue line-crossing lexicon Smyth captures with ease. “Let me you; it’s pretty fuckin’ easy…. Here’s what happened.”
It’s a dramatic story: the scrappy 5’6” kid from the boondocks catapulted on a jet stream of talent, ambition, an inflammable personality, a natural capacity for celebration — to improbable NHL stardom. And beyond: when his toxic secret begins to poison his life and his career, Fleury steps up unflinchingly, sometimes ruefully, always without a whine, to the craziness and fury that ensue. “I’m a pretty determined guy,” he says mildly. Blame is not his deal.
That story isn’t told with any narrative passivity in Jenkins’ production. Actually it doesn’t feel “told” at all; it feels lived. Smyth, a remarkably physical and charismatic performer, is on his feet, skating top-speed, shooting, scoring, taking head-long spills, the whole time — while changing team sweaters, and annotating non-stop, goal by goal, whole seminal series, Flames vs. Oilers, the Calgary-Vancouver series that led to the confrontation at the Forum.…
Single-handedly he conjures whole bench-clearing fights, and exults in pinnacle moments at the Olympics or sleeping with the Stanley Cup. Gloves get thrown, and rain down from the ceiling. Jenkins’ production is unfailingly inventive about populating Fleury’s world of careening energy.
In David Fraser’s design, the stage, coated with EZGlide, is a rink, with boards and Tim Horton’s and K-97 ads, the Zamboni between periods. There’s lurid hockey and nightclub lighting. Rock music blasts (designer: Skopyk), Corwin Ferguson’s projection and video design evokes the prairie vistas, the glittering skylines, the urban hellholes where Fleury’s career played itself extravagantly up up and away … and out.
Truthfully, I wouldn’t count as the best-informed member of the audience for Playing With Fire. Unlike some of you, I just don’t have the goal by goal count in the seventh and final game of the Flames vs…. who was it? on the tip of my tongue. I pretty much flunked the multiple-choice pre-game quiz. Somehow I can’t quite recall how many career goals Nieuwendyk scored for the Flames or the first NHL team Brett Hall played for. I didn’t even get the question right about which actor broke character in a Stratford production of King Lear to cheer a Canadian goal against Russia (William Hutt not Christopher Plummer, sigh).
But the way Smyth’s captivating performance creates a character you feel for, and fear for, and keep hoping for, and the way you want to cheer when he rescues himself in the nick of time … well, those are precious in theatre, stick or no stick.
Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre
Written by: Kirstie McLellan Day, based on the book by McLellan Day and Theo Fleury
Directed by: Ron Jenkins
Starring: Shaun Smyth
Running: through Oct 25
Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca