By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
There are layers of wispy fiddle music like aural smoke in the air, a haze of past and present.
“Tonight is just a dream,” advises Charlie (Cree actor/playwright Todd Houseman), the lovestruck Métis boy who leads us into a story of first love that works the way dreams do, in loops of memory that transcend time and place, sleeping and waking.
He’s pretty much nailed the occasion, too. The Citadel production of Mary’s Wedding, Tai Amy Grauman’s reimagining for Métis characters of the classic Canadian love story by Stephen Massicotte, finally arrived onstage last night live, and in front of a live (distanced, masked) audience to dream with.
There’s something of looped dream logic in the reversals of a year that’s been a lifetime. Jenna Rodgers’ Citadel production of Mary’s Wedding was mere days before its opening night last November when COVID restrictions shut that down. It opened instead onscreen, in a filmed version that began streaming just before Christmas, with thoughts of a live production in the new year. Meanwhile, designer Brianna Kolybaba’s slatted wooden installation sat gathering dust and dreaming of characters on the Shoctor stage, while the film production kept streaming (it still is, through Nov. 30).
And now, here we are, happy new year!, on a live opening night for a production that has looped back on the usual live-to-streaming chronology, as if a year had vanished into the ether. It feels like a special occasion. Time can resume now.
I saw the streamed version (my 12thnight review was posted on Jan. 4, remember January?). And I thought at the time how “theatrical” this memory play was on film, happening on a lighted set that seemed to float in darkness, “on the mind’s stage” so to speak. As you might expect, it feels different live — brighter, less faraway, more forward in shaping its characters when real live actors, Grauman herself and Houseman, are there with us.
In the poetic dreamscape that is Mary’s Wedding, a Romeo and Juliet story of young prairie lovers up against it plays out against the nightmare landscape of World War I an ocean away. It’s the night before Mary’s wedding in 1920, and we’re inside the bride-to-be’s dream of her first love, as it slides in a non-linear way from memory to memory. In this, the production is assisted dramatically by Patrick Beagan’s evocative ocean-crossing lighting, and Dave Clarke’s sound score, which finds the continuity between prairie thunder and the boom of warfare.
In Massicotte’s original, Charlie is a shy Canuck farm boy who loves to ride horses; Mary is an English rose, the daughter of class-conscious Brit immigrants. Grauman, a Métis/ Cree/ Hausenosaunee artist, reimagines the colonial nuances with Métis characters. And it’s striking how beautifully that works, not least by upping the ante on the stakes for Charlie as he leaves home to be a soldier across the sea.
Mary is from the “scrip” world (an initiative of farm land allotments designed to assimilate Métis families into the mainstream). The unschooled Charlie is from a hard-scrabble “road allowance” family, marginalized in every way by both First Nations reserves and white culture, and even by scrip mothers who dream of English suitors for their daughters. Even their language divides them: Mary’s Cree is limited to a single word; Charlie speaks Michif, a French/Cree hybrid.
Charlie’s only hope of being “somebody … a Canadian” is, he thinks, fighting for a country that has shoved him to the margins, a heartbreaking poignancy that hovers over that fateful decision to leave home. And he learns to write especially so he can send letters back to Mary.
For her part, Mary inhabits the letters. She remembers, and she imagines herself with him in the trenches, as his sergeant Gordon Flowerdew. “You’ll see her in everyone, in everything you do.” It’s the triumph and the tragedy of love — “kinda scary but good” — and it’s the same for her.
On screen, the dynamic between the actors is coloured by close-ups, and every exit from the light is a kind of vanishing. In Rodgers’ live production, the dynamic between the actors has greater physicality. The past and the present intersect by human agency. You see Charlie put on his soldier’s jacket to enter the scene, hunched in dread. You see Mary holding on to Charlie for dear life on horseback in a more visceral way. Live theatre is just more alive.
Grauman’s performance as Mary continues to be an original take on the dreamer. This one is no fragile romantic, no introspective Lady of Shalott; she’s quite brisk, earthy, almost matter-of-fact, who’s bemused to discover herself in love. She seems to be aware there’s an audience in the house. And Houseman’s Charlie has a tentative, awkward, aspirational sort of charm to him. Charlie in love, or at a society tea instead of on a horse, is a veritable human question mark in Houseman’s performance. “I was thinking, Mary, that maybe … I’m … not… the right sort….” I love his observation that, no, he has never seen the ocean, “but I’ve heard good things about it.”
Mary’s Wedding had its origins here, in a Workshop West Springboards reading in 2001 and a premiere at Alberta Theatre Projects’ late lamented PlayRites Festival in Calgary a year later. Productions proliferated across the country, and beyond, after that. Grauman’s Métis adaptation brings it back home — both its pair of mis-matched lovers who hide from storms in a prairie barn, and its anti-war thrust that sees through the slats of odes to bravery like Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, and finds the “valley of death” within.
The obligatory masks may muffle the Mary’s Wedding inevitable soundtrack of snuffling from the audience. But Charlie’s advice for us at the outset still stands. “There are sad parts. Don’t let that stop you from dreaming too.”
Written by: Stephen Massicotte
Adapted by: Tai Amy Grauman
Directed by: Jenna Rodgers
Starring: Tai Amy Grauman, Todd Houseman
Running: through Sept. 12