By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Sisters. You can’t live with ‘em and you can’t live without ‘em.
In the uniquely demanding new musical that premieres Friday, the finale of Northern Light Theatre’s 46th season, you will meet a pair of sisters who redefine family togetherness in an unusually graphic way.
Venus and Juno Hollis are conjoined twins, three arms between them. And in the course of the Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted, by NLT artistic director Trevor Schmidt (book) and Kaeley Jade Wiebe (music), they will sing, tell stories about other conjoined twins in history, talk about their family mythology. And they’ll play the guitar — the same guitar — together.
“Kaeley’s left hand does the chording; my right hand does the strumming,” says Wiebe’s co-star Rebecca Sadowski. “And the audience will wonder whose arm is whose … and try to figure us out.”
But that’s not the only challenge for the two engaging multi-faceted Métis artists twinned and bonded for the whole show in Schmidt’s production. Dancer/ choreographer Sadowski, “a dancer first” and hence a movement specialist by definition, has found herself “in a show where I’m bound and stationary,” bonded to another body, denied independent physical agency. “A totally new challenge, an interesting show to be in!”
An associate artist with Good Women Dance and recently in the Indigenous dance ensemble of Teneil Whiskeyjack’s Ayita at SkirtsAfire, she says “I haven’t done this much singing in a show for years!” And as for playing the guitar (even partially), “over the years, like any performer, I’ve learned small chords on guitar or piano or ukelele to accompany myself,” Sadowski says modestly. Music is crucial to a dancer and choreographer, of course. But in musical theatre, “I’ve been trying to really listen to the qualities Kaeley is trying to get across in the music….”
Wiebe, a young singer-songwriter who’s rapidly gaining star power in the indie music scene, is also an actor (a recent grad of the U of A’s BFA acting program) and a visual artist. “I write folky-pop music,” she says of her house style in song-writing. And a lot of the music she created for Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted, some of it played live and some of it pre-recorded, skews that way: “folk-based, plus country gospel…. There’s a bunch of other influences I’ve pulled in from vaudeville and music hall. But mostly, bluegrass/ folk/ country gospel anchors the whole piece.”
Which is exactly the retro blend a prairie tale set vaguely in the past, the dustbowl 1930s, would seem to invite. As applied to musical theatre, though, “it’s something new for me to try,” says Wiebe. “In (theatre) school you’re aiming for the classic musical theatre sound. This doesn’t have that heightened quality…. It’s a lot more colloquial. Super-intimate in the way an acoustic concert might feel.”
The story of Venus and Juno, the twin daughters of Jupiter Hollis and a mermaid, is the creation of Schmidt, who’s written small, unconventional, off-centre musicals before now (Klondykes with Darrin Hagen and Water’s Daughter with Ryan Sigurdson).
“A lot of pieces of the twins’ lives are woven together and layered, memories of formative moments in their lives that have led them to where they are now,” says Wiebe. “And their perspectives are different,” says Sadowski of monologues “where one twin turns away, in darkness and tells their particular point of view … how we perceive our mother and father, our relationship with our parents and each other.”
Jupiter Hollis is “god-like, a high intelligent being and presence in our lives,” says Wiebe. “We look up to him so thoroughly…. And our relationship to him and our views of him change as we grow up,” says Sadowski of a father figure whose strict policy of protecting his daughters from the gawking world has a downside.
Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted takes sibling rapport/friction to a whole new level. Both performers have sisters of their own for inspiration. “I am so annoyed with you and I just want to get away from you. But at the same I love you so much. Whatever!” as Sadowski puts it. “In the end what we hope for most, to get away from each other and separate, is our downfall.”
The story is propelled forward by music, says Wiebe, “especially as we get caught up in our memories.” The crux is that “our whole lives we’re seen as one. How do we find our own identity as individuals when we can’t go anywhere by ourselves?” Says Sadowski, “every decision is a joint decision.”
Sometimes the twins sing together. Sometimes they have their own songs — “our thoughts, our deepest secrets and fears, to share with the audience.” Wiebe fashioned the lyrics mostly from Schmidt’s prose and poetry text: “Trevor tasked me with jigsawing it into songs, and I’ve changed, tweaked, cut, even added a bit where necessary.”
For Wiebe, who was born in Fort McMurray and grew up on an acreage outside Edmonton, the new musical marries twin careers, theatre and music, which have so far remained separate. “A really cool project for me at this time in my life…. It pulls together all my skills, my experience.”
She still has to figure out how the conflicting logistics of theatre, with its weeks of rehearsals and performances, and music, with its single-night bookings, can be made to jibe. Her first full-length album, slated for a fall release and tour, “is still in the planning stages.”
Sadowski, who’s spent much of the pandemic doing film and has well-formed thoughts about showcasing dance in that medium, is the dance curator for Nextfest in June. Which means she’ll soon be planting dance shows in every nook and cranny of the beautiful new Roxy Theatre. Good Women Dance’s fall edition of Convergence is coming up. And she’s been in workshops for another new musical, Vern Thiessen’s adaptation of the Guy Vanderhaeghe novel The Englishman’s Boy.
“I’m very interested to see how the theatre audience reacts to this,” she says of Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted. In the world of musical theatre “It just feels different. Sometimes it feels like you’re sitting at a folk concert. Sometimes it’s singing for the beauty of singing. Refreshing. Simple. A beautiful set to look at. We’re not moving around; we’re here to enjoy some music….”
With the Hollis twins costume designer Deanna Finnman, best known here for her work with Edmonton Opera, has had an intriguing challenge. “Honestly, it’s stunning,” says Sadowski of the costume she shares with Wiebe. “It gives the illusion we are one body,” a body with three arms and three legs. “I was fearful we’d feel very tight inside. It’s a bit more roomy than I’d thought.”
Theatre: Northern Light Theatre
Created by: Trevor Schmidt (book) and Kaeley Jade Wiebe (music)
Directed by: Trevor Schmidt
Starring: Kaeley Jade Wiebe and Rebecca Sadowski
Where: Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Friday through May 7
Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com