By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve with this play,” says Geoffrey Simon Brown of Michael Mysterious.
One of the hottest of the country’s younger generation of playwrights, Brown is musing on the play, years in the creating and honing, that premieres Thursday at La Cité francophone in a Pyretic production. “Other plays of mine have come from a question or a subject or something I really wanted to explore.… This one comes from my love of these characters and my love of this world.”
In the 35 scenes of Michael Mysterious we meet five characters who are living together, having dinner together, struggling to be themselves, be there for each other, and somehow be happy in a fractious add-on “family.”
Two are grown-ups; three are teenagers. At the centre is the mysterious Michael, a neglected 15-year-old who’s been left alone in the world — “falling through the cracks” as director Patrick Lundeen puts it — when his grandmother dies. The mother of his childhood best friend gathers him into the home where she lives with her new boyfriend, her kid, and her boyfriend’s kid.
Brown, genial and thoughtful in conversation, is a founder of the experimental artist-run Major Matt Mason Collective (named whimsically for a Mattel action figure) with roots in Calgary and a national profile in attracting young artists and young audiences not traditionally much given to theatre-going. Edmonton audiences have seen Brown’s work before. But sightings have been rare here, and (amazingly) never in a theatre.
There was the eerie gathering in Rundle Park at dusk last June to meet (from our cars, with the radio tuned to FM) in Night someone haunted by the encroaching wilderness, who feels themself transforming into a wolf. Before that, Air, an intense and scary four-hander, happened at the 2015 Found Festival, devoted to unexpected theatrical encounters between artists and audiences. Brown’s partner playwright/ actor Elena Belyea (of Tiny Bear Jaws and the sketch duo Gender? I Hardly Knew Them) was one of the founders of Found. “And when we started dating it was my introduction to the Edmonton scene,” says Brown.
And in the kind of impromptu hospitality that is a Found theatrical scenario in itself, the festival bonded Brown and Pyretic’s Lundeen too, as the latter recounts, amused. Because he was the Found artistic director at the time, “having trouble finding a house people were willing to give to a bunch of actors to trash,” it transpired that 60 people crammed into Lundeen’s own hot and air-less living room in the middle of summer for Air. He and his playwright wife Lianna Makuch moved all their furniture into the garage so that Major Matt Mason “could turn my house in a drug den.”
The upshot was that “I really liked this guy and I was blown away by the play,” says Lundeen. “He doesn’t hold back.” He went to Calgary to see Brown in his high-profile play The Circle, set at “a high school garage party Friday night in suburbia.” And ever since, Lundeen has been keen to direct one of Brown’s plays. “It was a toss-up for me between The Circle and Michael Mysterious. “I found myself gravitating to (the latter’s) characters. I felt like I grew up with them, I knew them, the adults too….”
“I was thirsty to get into a nitty-gritty drama,” says Lundeen, an actor grad of the National Theatre School (Brown is a playwriting alumnus) who has turned to directing (Matthew MacKenzie’s Bears and The Other, and Makuch’s Blood of Our Soil among his productions). “And I find this play absolutely freakin’ hilarious…. Geoff and I are still debating whether I can use the word comedy to describe it.”
“There’s a Chekhov quality to it,” he thinks. “Laughing at our own miseries is so key to it.”
Brown traces Michael Mysterious back to his NTS days. “I was writing a play about a guy who has an endless memory… It was written all out of order; I tracked his whole life, and wrote a lot of scenes about when he was a teenager.”
“When I gave it to my dramaturge, the late great (and colourful) Iris Turcotte, she said ‘you fucking dumbass, you wrote two different plays!’…. I cut out all the teenage characters and scenes and put them away.” On a month-long writer’s retreat in France at the end of 2014, “I thought I was going to write a detective play,” says Brown. “I kept trying and while I was procrastinating I kept coming back to these characters in this world…. By the time I left I’d written a whole draft. And, typical of me, I spent the next three years meticulously editing and re-writing.”
“I’ve taken a lot from my life , my friends, my family, things I’ve been feeling about the world,” says Brown. He adds, “my (own) immediate family, we’re very close; I love them dearly. I’d hate for people to think that the moments that are less than lovely are about my family.”
“Who is your immediate family? Who is your chosen family? The ways in which people come into and out of your life …” these questions engage the playwright who’s now reached his 30s. And what of friendship? “A commonality in all my plays,” Brown says, “is I tend to write about people who are lonely and not quite able to find connections with others. Or are just starting to find that connection … not just the teenagers but the parents too.”
“Especially in my early ‘20s I gravitated to teenage characters…. I need a little time to process what I’ve been through before I can write about it. … I feel like I could look back and understand where I’d been as a teen.”
“So many people are going to see aspects of themselves in some, if not all, of the characters,” says Lundeen, who’s spent three years “working and dreaming” to make the premiere happen. “The awkwardness of growing up, the way teens are sometimes more mature and know better than the adults….”
It resonates powerfully with him. “I had a bit of an interesting family life growing up,” says Lundeen, who left home at 15. “My parents were not the most functional and healthy people. I’ve managed to go back and rebuild those relationships, but there’s something about these teenagers who have to grow up faster than they need to.… I identify with this boy who didn’t know where he was supposed to go, who needed a community, or someone, or something to give him a leg up.”
For Lundeen, that something for his lost, confused 15-year-old self, was theatre, first at Vic (Edmonton’s performing arts high school) and then at the NTS. “That’s what’s so amazing about theatre,” he says of the exponential creativity — “the energy and blood flow” as he puts it — that his cast and designers have brought to Michael Mysterious. “So often it’s something we hadn’t even thought of.… It’s a collaboration! Everyone is involved!”
The house (designed by Stephanie Bahniuk) is “almost a character in itself,” says Lundeen. “A pressure cooker of everyone’s objectives … to co-exist, to be happy and make room for other people to be happy — to find that ideal life that we’re all supposed to have. But there’s something going on that prevents their objectives from being realized.”
Is Brown, in the end, an optimist, times being what they are? “I ride the line,” he says. “The message of most of my plays, this one included, is that world is chaos. And all we have is each other. It’s so important that we really strive to look out for each other. Otherwise we’re lost.”
Theatre: Pyretic Productions
Written by: Geoffrey Simon Brown
Directed by: Patrick Lundeen
Starring: Gavin Dyer, Christina Nguyen, Thomas Tunski, Amber Borotsik, Jesse Gervais
Where: La Cité francophone, 8627 Rue Marie-Anne Gaboury
Running: Thursday through Oct. 24