By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Theatre is a serious work, my friends. It requires commitment, bold attack, research, tough backstage choices approached face-on.
Holly Lewis walked into a rehearsal room at the Citadel after lunch one day a couple of weeks ago. “The production team had been having a meeting,” she says of preparations for The Fiancée, her new comedy.“They’d set up different six different kinds of cake, with icing…. One of the actors would have to stick their face into all six, to see how each one sticks.” The rehearsal in question was listed on the call sheet for Friday as “a run with the cakes.” Lewis couldn’t stop laughing.
A “six-actor farce with six actors, seven characters, and seven doors,” and cake, The Fiancée, winner of the Alberta Playwriting Competition Novitiate Award, starts previews Saturday in a production directed by Daryl Cloran. And its stage logistics are exponentially intricate, quintessentially farcical one might say.
In Lewis’s farce, set in ‘40s Edmonton during World War II, we meet Lucy, a generous-minded young woman who accepts proposals from three men,— “no one should have to go overseas without someone to come home to” — expecting that they won’t all make it back. But they do. All three. On the same day.
Lucy’s world teeters precariously on the precipice of chaos. Doors are slammed, wigs are donned and doffed. Formerly sane people find themselves reduced to ducking behind things, or vaulting over couches, or getting shoved into closets.
“Then you have to set a clock!” says Lewis, a remarkably funny, effervescent conversationalist much prone to laughter. Eviction hangs over Lucy (Helen Belay) and her sister (Patricia Cerra). “They’ve just got a new landlady, they don’t have the money to pay the rent, and they have to come up with it! By 6 o’clock!.” AND there are proprieties to be dodged: it’s a ‘family building’: visitations by a surplus of fiancés is a no-no.
This flirtation with cosmic chaos is only enhanced by having six actors play seven characters. Sheldon Elter (the star of Bears, recently closed) plays two; late in the play they appear in the same scene, says Lewis with unmistakeable glee. “And I like that! I love those moments that make theatre feel like a sport, and you’re not sure if the goal is going to happen…. It’s exciting for the audience; it’s exciting and terrifying for the actor!”
Elter had a hair-raising 30 seconds to make the costume change.“That was the day I needed to be in rehearsal hall and ask ‘how do we buy him another five seconds’?” He got them. Other re-writes happened, Lewis reports, because of the sheer comic inventiveness of the actors. “Actors are so brilliant…. In some places what the actor is doing with their body is funnier than what I’ve written so I can pull some things out.” The script, she says, “is three pages shorter than when we went into rehearsal.”
The Fiancée isn’t Lewis’s playwriting debut. She was a co-creator of two high-profile international collaborations undertaken by Theatrefront, the Toronto indie company founded in 1999 by an ensemble including Cloran and Lewis, who are married. One was Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project (Citadel audiences saw it in 2017). The other, Return: The Sarajevo Project, produced in Bosnia and Toronto in 2006, “is still the production I’m most proud of,” she says. The whole experience was so full…. I actually ended up going back to university after that, in Peace and Conflict studies.”
And there’s Lewis’s 15-minute kids’ play, Sisters, for Concrete Theatre’s 2018 Sprouts Festival. But The Fiancé, fully seven years in the making, is “my first full-length complete play written solo, by me alone,” she says. Why start with farce, the most intricate, dauntingly complicated of theatrical forms? “What I was going to be when I grew up was an engineer,” she says. “Math, physics, that’s my jam.…”
Lewis is in an undoubtedly exclusive subset of Queen’s University transfers from engineering to theatre school. That’s where she met Cloran (and “we’ve been collaborators ever since”). “I’d finished my first year of university,” says the Scarborough native. “I went to Toronto to a play and the lights went down and I just started to cry. I cried for the first two scenes. And it was a comedy! It was then I realized I’d made a wrong choice….”
The precarious architecture of farces is a magnet to a mind like Lewis’s. “The thing about farces, there’s so much structure and math to them, speaks to my other passion,” she says “You take a play and reverse-engineer it, see how it works, rebuild. Math and laughter: how can you do better than that?”
How on earth does the playwright keep track of who’s behind which door when? Lewis hauls around a cork board that only an engineer manqué could love, with an elaborate system of cue cards colour-coded to reveal who’s in a room and who’s not. “And it’s quite beautiful!” Lewis says. “In an attempt to understand structure,” she’s even written a modern adaptation of The Three Sisters set in Edmonton (the three sisters used to be in a band). “It sounds crazy to choose Chekhov,” she says. “But within each of his beats, the structure is really clear….”
Cloran has said “secretly, if Holly could be anyone, she’d be Lucille Ball.” Lewis loves comedy. “Early in my acting career I did tragedy after tragedy. And I was, like, what if tripped on the stairs? No!” she laughs. In a Toronto production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which she played Hermia, one of her cast-mates was a Cirque du Soleil clown. “I begged him to teach me to do a stair fall.” He did; a farceur was born in that lesson.
The first draft of The Fiancée took five years. “I finished it just before the pandemic.” Lewis gathered friends and they read it aloud “to see it if was funny…. We laughed and laughed.”
“Proof of concept! It was funny; it had funny things in it. But it was missing its middle. The gears didn’t drive you forward to the end,” she says. “ So that was the work of the pandemic for me…. I knew what was going to happen in the end. But how to make that inevitable?”
The ‘40s look and performance style is “very delightful,” as Lewis says. “A lot of eye candy, fantastic costumes. and there’s something about the actors from that time period too, the Katherine Hepburns of the world, letting you see a different way of being being a woman and making choices.”
The starting point for Lewis was a question: “What would be a situation where it could happen that a woman would juggle three men?” a reversal of the more usual farce situation, where the escalating panic of a man is at the centre. In Boeing Boeing, for example, a man’s complicated romantic predicament is the result of having three flight attendant girlfriends, grounded on the same night due to global bad weather.
And Lewis had another condition. She didn’t want her protagonist “to be manipulative in the situation; I wanted to make a kinder protagonist; I wanted her to stay the hero.” Lucy’s motivation for letting herself get engaged to three guys is kindly, generous.
“Her challenge is my challenge,” says Lewis, laughing. “I do have have a hard time saying no and setting boundaries…. I’m a people-pleaser and I want people to feel good. And that can get you into a lot of trouble…. And (that womanly predicament) is still happening. Making it funny is a way of questioning it without judging it.”
“At the end of the day it’s not wrong to say Yes to things. It’s just you have to say Yes to the things you want, and No to the things you don’t want!”
Says Lewis “I tried to create a comedy where everyone in the audience is going to have an amazing time … because nobody is the butt of the joke.” She points to the first season of Ted Lasso, “laugh out loud funny but no one is ever targeted in a mean way…. It’s a challenge because so much of comedy is about making fun of people.”
The farce archive is dotted liberally with examples that are pretty much unplayable in the modern world, “plays where making fun of people with different cultural backgrounds or physical differences is part of the engine of the farce,” as Lewis puts it. Humour tends to be time-sensitive. But there are classics that are perennially hysterical. The ne plus ultra farce in the contemporary repertoire? Noises Off, says Lewis without hesitation. One Man Two Guvnors is a contender, too.
She thinks “you can learn a lot about the mechanics of a farce” from the 19th century master farceur Georges Feydeau. A Flea in Her Ear is often compared in its initial structural impulse to Othello. In Shakespeare, a misplaced handkerchief precipitates the declension into tragedy; in Feydeau a pair of suspenders gone AWOL leads to “outlandish comedy.”
“The hero of comedy doesn’t have time to think; they have to act immediately. And it leads them to ridiculous decisions and, of course, to happy endings. But the stakes are equally high…. As Daryl always says of farce, what the characters want they want so badly they’re willing to climb over a couch to get it!”
“Coming out of the pandemic, ha, there’s an optimistic phrase, I want to really laugh and enjoy myself,” says Lewis happily. “For me, sitting in my house imagining little pieces that will make people laugh is so good for my mental health. It’s driven me through to this point!”
“A writer writes for seven years in silence in their room…. And this is what we do it for. This is like a dessert buffet for me.” And there will be cake.
Written by: Holly Lewis
Directed by: Daryl Cloran
Starring: Helen Belay, Lora Brovold, Patricia Cerra, Sheldon Elter, Farren Timoteo, Tenaj Williams
Running: Saturday through Nov. 28
Tickets and masking/vaccination requirements: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com.