By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Tonight is just a dream. I ask you to remember that. It begins at the end and ends at the beginning….
Mary’s Wedding, available for streaming to cross-country audiences from the Citadel Dec. 22, takes us into a World War I memory dreamscape where a tale of first love unfolds against the most brutal of backdrops.
We meet Mary and Charlie, two mis-matched prairie lovers whose romantic story criss-crosses all the usual boundaries of time and space, sleeping and waking, the might-have-beens and the should-have-beens.
Stephen Massicotte’s two-hander, a bona fide Canadian theatre classic, began life as a staged reading at Workshop West’s 2001 Springboards Festival, premiered in Calgary at Alberta Theatre Projects’ PlayRites Festival a year later, and has travelled the country and the world ever since. A brand new adaptation by the Métis, Cree and Haudenosaunee actor/playwright Tai Amy Grauman was to have been the second in the Citadel’s Horizon Live! series on the Shoctor stage. Mere days from opening night at the end of November, new Alberta COVID restrictions nixed that live run (until the new year; the set remains standing). Meanwhile the theatre stepped up with a filmed version of the production, available for streaming through Jan. 30.
In her adaptation, which stars Grauman herself opposite the Cree actor/playwright/ improviser/ filmmaker Todd Houseman, Mary’s Wedding is a Métis love story, with Métis characters poised on a particularly Métis divide. On the phone, Grauman, who thinks and talks at top speed with exclamation point punctation, explains that her attraction to Massicotte’s play goes way back. “I’ve always wanted to play Mary. Plus I love love stories….”
“I grew up in Ardrossan (her folks have a farm there), where all my best friends marry their high school sweethearts, and I’m the dumpy sister!” Grauman laughs. “So I do have this sense of small-town girl love that’s written into my fabric.” Moreover, there’s this: “my big thing is Métis love stories!”
It’s a driving force in Grauman’s own writing, she says. Her Name Is Marie, a commission from Toronto’s Nightswimming Theatre, is a Métis love story. Her kids’ play commission from Vancouver’s Axis Theatre is a Métis love story. Her MFA thesis project at the U of A is an exploration of Métis love stories.
Grauman, who’s moved back to Edmonton mid-pandemic from Vancouver (where she graduated from UBC theatre school), explains. “The women in my family weren’t documented in any way shape or form. The men in my family were heroes, Métis heroes.” So “the journey began” with Grauman tearing into the Alberta archives, looking for family stories of the Callihoos, who have a long history in Métis resistance. “I could find information on the husbands and when they were baptized and what-not, and no information on the women!”
“Even though from a colonialist perspective, the western settler concept of history, men looked like they were leading, women actually ran our systems of governance and the households.… My journey as a playwright has been piecing stories together about (them).”
“Métis women,” declares Grauman, “love hard. They give everything to their men and children…. Actually Métis people in general are big, and love hard, and celebrate and dance and sing and love and joke….”
“And that’s why I’m telling love stories,” she says. “And also because our men can’t really see us any more. It’s a bit ballsy to say but I’m going to say it anyway: I’m writing these love stories because I want our men to remember how we used to live.… I love them and I want them to come back to us, to the way we used to love each other!” The patriarchy of the last 100 years has taken its toll, she thinks, on “the feminine presence.”
Another facet of her attraction to Mary’s Wedding and its transmutation into a Métis story is, Grauman says, “fate and partnerships written in the stars” (an idea of Cree provenance). Mary and Charlie are fated to be soul-mates. It’s their choices that inhibit that from happening. And it makes me really sad….”
The cultural divide between Mary and Charlie in Massicotte’s original is that she’s from a Brit immigrant family and he’s a prairie farm boy. In Grauman’s adaptation Charlie is from “a road allowance community,” Métis people “stuck in the margins between First Nations reserves and white settlements,” validated in neither. And Mary is from “a scrip family, “a system of farm land vouchers for Métis in hopes they would assimilate and become ‘Canadian farmers’.”
Love overcomes complications (as we know from all kinds of sources, including that business in Verona with the Capulets and Montagues). “She doesn’t speak Cree; he speaks Michif (a French/Cree hybrid). She goes to school; he doesn’t…. He teaches her Cree, and learns to read and write in the trenches in order to write to her. And that makes it that much more impactful and important.”
Like the Citadel’s Daryl Cloran, playwright Massicotte was struck by the easy way the concept slid into the original. “I’m so fortunate!” declares Grauman. “In a pandemic, I had an idea, and within two months (a production) was announced!” And she reports that her co-star Houseman, a playwright himself (Whiteface, Folk Lordz), contributed ideas too.
“There aren’t a lot of changes in the text itself,” says Grauman. “But our bodies, Todd’s and mine, and the ways we react to certain lines, make them read differently.”
“We both have hair down to our butts,” she says. “I was told I would never be a romantic lead — I’m size 10 and have dark hair. I was always told I’d be the funny best friend.”
Grauman’s groove is creating original work in order to perform it. “Since I was 18, that’s how I rolled,” she says of such outings as Walterdale Theatre’s One-Act Play Festival. As a kid, “I grew up dancing, and I went to the (Citadel’s) Foote Theatre School.” And in Ardrossan “I did Country Kid Drama,” she laughs. “I was Dorothy in The Wizard or Oz.”
Mary’s Wedding brings a real Métis presence to a period in which it is very often ignored. “The story of Métis veterans (in World War I) is seriously under-told,” she says. “And I think people need the joy of love stories,” she says. “At a time when we can’t shake strangers’ hands, how radical to see two Indigenous people fall in love onstage…. It’s not all trauma. I want to share love and joy.”
Theatre: Citadel Theatre
Written by: Stephen Massicotte
Adapted by: Tai Amy Grauman
Directed by: Jenna Rodgers
Starring: Tai Amy Grauman, Todd Houseman
Available for streaming: Dec. 22 from 5 p.m. to Jan. 30