By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
How do you get to Fever Land? The kingdom where your temperature heats up, your spirit rises, your vivacity escalates, and that gray clammy feeling is vanquished?
Try the theatre, live and in person. The Varscona is where you’ll find Teatro La Quindicina’s season finale, directed by Belinda Cornish. That’s where the strange and the familiar mingle and dance (and have snacks) together in a bold, mysteriously haunting way.
“I feel sort of flushed, accelerated,” says Betsy Locke, near the outset of Fever Land, a Stewart Lemoine play first seen at the Fringe in 1999 and last revived 17 years ago. So do we all, returning to the theatre after such a long and brutal separation.
That feeling isn’t the usual with Betsy (Jenny McKillop). She’s a shy, mild-mannered junior high home ec teacher in Winnipeg, 1966. Her only adult diversion from a solitary, even-keeled sort of life is singing in a choir, the weekly practices of the Red River Chorale. Even that choral participation, as one of 128 members, has a certain not-unwelcome predictability: she’s second alto, row four. “And my part is more or less the same in everything we do,” she notes.
Disconcertingly nervous at an audition for choir director Clark (Garett Ross) and his grating motormouth wife Diane (April Banigan), Betsy will discover her routine world has somehow cracked wide open.
The arrival in ‘60s Winnipeg and in Betsy’s life of the Erlking is no sneak intervention, as Cornish’s production and Andrew MacDonald Smith’s performance relish. He’s a glorious vision in scarlet (costumes by Leona Brausen), direct from the Goethe poem via Schubert. “Let’s dance and play!” cries the extrovert monarch. “You don’t need a reason for anything when you spend time with The Erling!” Betsy is momentarily surprised to see him, but amazingly she’s not flabbergasted.
Soon The Erlking will be joined by an equally scarlet, otherworldly pal, Myrtha Queen of the Willis (Cathy Derkach) from Act II of the ballet Giselle, who’s recruiting for her band of avenging Furies. And in the course of Fever Land this high-energy party-hearty pair will explore the sights of Winnipeg, tuck into the porterhouse at Rae and Jerry’s, the prime rib at the Charterhouse motor inn downtown. “When in Winnipeg …” says Myrtha.
Red velvet cake, the mysterious specialty of the Eaton’s restaurant, is the big hit: “Chocolate and red dye,” explains the Erlking who does his homework. “Get outta here! says Myrtha.
Meanwhile, as directed by her new lifestyle coaches, Betsy is revisiting scenes, happy and sad, from the strange new reality into which her unplanned, tentative affair with a Clark has propelled her— from impromptu exhilaration at the zoo (“hippos are pretty circumspect”), to afternoon assignations at the Charterhouse, to the inevitable brush-off. All via repeating scenes of waiting by the phone, silently willing it to ring, the iconography of affairs with married men world-wide. The Erlking helps her pass the time (“bacon makes everything better”).
McKillop’s lovely performance captures the wide-eyed, open-hearted sweetness of a woman no longer quite young finally saying yes to something instead of ‘no, wait’ or ‘settle down class’. She’s not an initiator; second altos in row four tend not to be. But she steps up to possibility, to adventure. And in a life that’s hitherto been, without resentment, “school, school, more school; we cook, we sew,” there’s fortitude in being conciliatory, in accepting consequences, however unforeseen, however heartbreaking.
As the harried choir director husband Clark, who blurts out a visceral loathing for his wife (even “the way she looks when she’s singing”), Ross charts the course between spontaneously reaching out and cowardly retreat with skill and subtlety. He has the guilty look of a man who senses his own capacity for ordinary run-of-the-mill cruelty.
Banigan goes for the gusto as the comically appalling Diane, who has more words by far than all the other characters in the play put together. She literally never stops talking, even to take a breath. As the outraged Clark points out convincingly, grinding his teeth (with live demos by Diane), it’s in an unctuous, condescendingly smiley, shrill way, interspersed with trilling bits of Bach, Brahms, “even Healy Willan!.”
As for the energetic pair of guidance counsellors from the other world, both MacDonald-Smith and Derkach have a riotous time of it in Cornish’s vivid production. The Erlking, who sports the most extravagant pair of shoes seen on an Edmonton stage in several seasons, flings himself choreographically across the stage and into chairs with an exuberance that knows no bounds. And as the earthier Queen of the Willis, a specialist in revenge, Derkach attacks red velvet cake with a carnivorous joie de vivre, and stomps on and off the stage like a Borscht Belt comic who’s late for a gig.
What they’re both about is translating heartbreak — the tragic, yes, but also the unrequited or prosaic, the disappointing or merely aspirational — into art. And this they do, assisted by transcendent choral music. As happens often in Lemoine, the big-m Moments of life are accompanied, or instigated, by music.
Visiting the land of fever is a strange, sad/joyful experience. You’ll be surprised. You’ll smile. Your eyes will mist over your mask.
Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina
Written by: Stewart Lemoine
Directed by: Belinda Cornish
Starring: Jenny McKillop, April Banigan, Cathy Derkach, Garett Ross, Andrew MacDonald-Smith
Running: through Oct. 10