Mary’s Wedding: inside Mary’s dream in a new Métis version of the classic, streaming from the Citadel. A review

Todd Houseman and Tai Amy Grauman in Mary’s Wedding, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Arthur Mah.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It is no surprise that the land acknowledgment at the outset of Mary’s Wedding, delivered by one of its characters, has a particular resonance in the Citadel production that opened its digital streaming run Dec. 22 (with the idea of running it live sometime “early in 2021”).

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The land, the sense of place and displacement, the need to belong, and the pull of home have extra weight and meaning in the Métis version of Stephen Massicotte’s much-travelled World War I romance. It’s been adapted from Massicotte’s war-time love story by Métis/ Cree/ Hausenosaunee playwright Tai Amy Grauman, who co-stars in Jenna Rodgers’ Citadel production opposite Cree actor/playwright Todd Houseman.

Grauman’s bright idea reimagines with Métis characters this bona fide Canadian classic (which premiered in Calgary in 2002 at Alberta Theatre Projects’ PlayRites Festival). It’s the story of young, mismatched prairie lovers separated by time, space, a vast ocean, the dark currents of history. The Canadian cultural frictions — Mary is from the colonial aristocracy as the daughter of British immigrants, Charlie a homegrown homespun prairie farm boy — bite more sharply when the characters are both Métis.

The reinvention includes a language divide to be overcome, too. Mary (Grauman) is from a “scrip” family (a system of farm land allowances designed to assimilate Métis families into the mainstream). Cree is a foreign language to her. The unschooled Charlie (Houseman), whose native language is Michif (a French/Cree hybrid), is from “a road allowance community.” Theirs is a hard-scrabble life on the margins of the margins, excluded from both First Nations reserves and white world.

Charlie’s only ticket to respectability and inclusion is … war. “I’ll be someone; I’ll be a Canadian….” When he leaves home and crosses the sea to be a soldier, it’s under the flag of a country and for a way of life that devalues him. The stakes are upped. It’s Houseman as Charlie who delivers the land acknowledgment at the start. And in light of the play to follow there’s a particularly heartbreaking remonstration in that.

This fluid, lyrical play is a dream, and a nightmare, and a haunting. And haunting, a weave of past and present, defines first love in Mary’s Wedding. We’re inside Mary’s dream the night before her wedding in 1920. And the play works in the non-linear the way dreams do, in loops of remembered moments that defy chronology and transcend location.

The charm of the lovers’ meetings, which involve them taking shelter in a barn from booming prairie thunderstorms, is counterpointed by the roar (sound designer: Dave Clarke) of scenes from the horrific overseas war. Charlie writes to Mary laboriously from the trenches, and his letters come alive. Sometimes Mary imagines herself as Charlie’s  sergeant Gordon Flowerdew, whose advice to the young soldier is prophetic. Avoid falling in love, says the Sarge. Or “you’ll see her in everyone, and everything you do.” Love, Mary’s Wedding tells us, is a kind of imaginative co-habitation.

Todd Houseman and Tai Amy Grauman in Mary’s Wedding, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Arthur Mah

Like memory, Brianna Kolybaba’s design, a slatted wooden installation, sits like a kind of alighted installation free-floating in the surrounding  darkness. When Mary or Charlie step out of the light, it’s into blackness; images flash into the foreground of the remembered past, then get replaced by others. Patrick Beagan’s dramatic lighting design plays along the palette between golden and pewter: the glow of remembered encounters back home and the black-and-white flashes of the scenes of war imagined by Mary.  The original fiddle music is by Kathleen Nisbet.  

Rodgers’ production was originally destined for live performance at the end of November on the Citadel’s Shoctor stage. When, three days before opening, that proved impossible, it was captured on video. That it’s self-evidently a theatrical production, and feels like theatre and not a film, is actually an apt metaphor for a “memory play,” a play that happens on the mind’s stage.

The performances in Rodgers’ production have an unexpected dynamic. Grauman’s as Mary has a sturdy kind of matter-of-fact earthiness that’s an original choice in the role. Dreaming herself into Charlie’s wartime experience, Mary can say “I am alone on the moon,” but she doesn’t seem to be by nature a wistful moon-y romantic. When Mary says “war begins, and I cannot do anything about it,” it’s clear that she’s someone accustomed to “doing.” Regret doesn’t come easily to her, even in a dream. She is no sentimental cliché of the girl that got left behind. And in the end I found the starchy resistance in Grauman’s performance touching in itself.

Houseman captures the appealingly awkward, tentative charm of the shy farm boy who can’t help wondering, in the corner of his mind, if he’s out of his league. “I’ve never seen the ocean before. But I’ve heard good things.” The only poem Charlie knows is Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, with its ultra-romantic defence of sacrificial valour: “into the valley of death rode the 600.” The implications stop Mary in her tracks. “That’s poetry, not real life….”

It’s striking how easily, and meaningfully, Grauman’s Métis adaptation slides into the framework of the original. I’d venture to say that no one anywhere has ever made it through Mary’s Wedding without Kleenex. This Métis version earns your tears in an enhanced way.

Check out 12thnight’s interview with actor/playwright Tai Amy Grauman here.

REVIEW

Mary’s Wedding

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Stephen Massicotte

Adapted by: Tai Amy Grauman

Directed by: Jenna Rodgers

Starring: Tai Amy Grauman, Todd Houseman

Where: online via citadeltheatre.com

Running: through Jan. 31

Streaming passes: citadeltheatre.com

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