By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
There they sit, motionless under a rosy moon, a two-headed prairie oracle atop a body wrapped in mystery.
They’re the centrepiece of an eerie altar: a bank of ghostly corn stalks, a gothic farmhouse facade, an shadowy assortment of oddball vintage offerings — double-headed dolls, boots and old bicycle wheels, antlers and a seahorse, musical instruments.…
It’s a stunning image that greets you in Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted, when you enter the Studio Theatre: a human sculpture and a mysterious prairie shrine. In Northern Light Theatre’s wonderfully strange new “musical” created by Trevor Schmidt (book) and Kaeley Jade Wiebe (music) — “a prairie gothic song cycle of mythology and mermaids for conjoined twins” as billed — Venus and Juno Hollis (Wiebe and Rebecca Sadowski) preside from the amazing shrine. And they never budge.
In its unusual way, Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted is a kind of living art installation, designed by Schmidt and beautifully moon- and starlit by Roy Jackson. Conjoined twins, are a vivid demonstration (and a metaphor) of a tension we all know between the safe familiar and the risky unknown: the chafing constraints of being part of a family and tucked in to a history, and the urge to find and be your own individual self. The costume designed by Deanna Finnman which is both one dress and not one dress, speaks to that.
In the course of the song cycle, the sisters will sing of the wind and the stars, of prairie dust and two-headed calves, of wide-open space and no space at all, in atmospherically conversational songs that give off the wistful scent of country blues. And from time to time in Schmidt’s production the sisters will accompany themselves jointly on one guitar, Which is, beyond everything else, an achievement in actorly collaboration. (Side note: theatre casts routinely declare themselves close-knit ensembles. On Venus and Juno’s behalf I say Ha!).
In the cracks between sisterly duets, Venus and Juno will reveal the separate dreams, aspirations, personalities and temperaments of two people often mistaken for one. “Two peas in a pod”, yes. “But two very different peas.” Juno, as Sadowski creates her, is the take-charge twin, warier, more practical and skeptical. As Venus Wiebe is more naive, more impulsive, more hopeful, somehow younger. “It’s called context!” whispers Juno tetchily, in response to Venus’s impatience to get on with the story.
It’s the story of their odd family, led by godlike daddy, the late Jupiter Hollis. He fell in love with a mermaid, and plucked Ida May far from her natural habitat to live with him in his prairie farmhouse (alas, Square Lake has no lake, just a town). Being a lovestruck protector makes him a jailer of sorts, as his conjoined daughters know, relegated frequently as they are to a place under the stairs, safe from the public gaze that’s very apt to see freaks instead of miracles. Under the circumstances, the showbiz debut that’s parentally approved is radio, the Red Rooster Music Hour. And the sisters achieve local fame as a singing duo in the “Square Lake, Black Falls and greater White Pine Region.”
Freaks and miracles: that’s the cultural double-optic of famous conjoined twins in history joined by “the bond of flesh,” as reviewed by Juno and Venus. They include 19th century Siamese-American brothers Chang and Eng, and Amabie, a legendary Japanese mermaid of the Edo period with three tails. And what of the fate, tricky for the justice system, of conjoined twins, one guilty of murder one not? “Some bonds you can break/ by chance or by fate; others are sealed by the gods.”
The sisters have “two heads close together/ as if in deep thought/ three arms wrapped together/ as if in one knot.” They tally up two cheeks, two hats, “one and a half pair of hose,” three bracelets. But they have one heart. Can you split a heart without lasting, possibly fatal, damage?
Now, there’s a question that interests Schmidt and Wiebe jointly. And heartbreak is put a lot more elegantly — albeit literally — in this musical than in mainstream country music, to be sure. Wiebe’s score has a kind of haunting directness and simplicity about it. Venus sings of the hunger “to have my own dreams … is it wrong to want more?” But in a song that’s reprised, they sing together “my heart shall break for the loss of yours….”
Like the story, the poetry of Schmidt’s text, with music to match by Wiebe, veers between jigging rhythms that are a bit Robert W. Service-like, and more unruly verse. The twins’ memory of their mermaid mother, gradually expiring in an unhospitable element, is set forth in a sad waltz. The show’s most lyrical song is animated by thoughts of waves and water. The landlocked mermaid dies of it; the twins nearly drown in it.
Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted kind of sneaks up on you at this threshhold moment in our history, when we miss human connection and long for it and fear it. It’s theatrically sly and piquant, and it breaks your own heart a little too.
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: through May 7
Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com