By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It’s a funny thing, don’t you find, the way memory works. How the past gets unearthed from its subterranean lair in detached moments, a snippet of melody, a smell, the sound of a laugh, a scribble on a recipe? And it’s in no particular order: if memory has an organizing principle, it’s certainly not chronology.
Ren & the wake, a new musical by alt-folk rocker Lindsey Walker (music and lyrics) and playwright Megan Dart (book), is all about being at the intersection of the past and the future, traffic moving in both directions, and not knowing what to do. Or even how to step off the curb.
The Catch The Keys production, directed as a show-within-a-show by Beth Dart, invites us to a wake at the Backstage Theatre. It’s crammed with an oddball sepia-tinged assortment of stuff (an atmospheric design by Whittyn Jason) — dusty curtains, old lamps, a vintage typewriter, empty wine bottles, a fake fireplace, keys, a sock, boxes of indeterminate things. Ren (they/them, played by Marguerite Lawler) is at the door, looking more than a little dazed by grief, to welcome us on behalf of their late mother.
As Lawler’s performance conveys, with its impromptu memories, stops, starts, annotations, they’re overwhelmed by the requirements of the occasion. They’re trying to conjure someone loved from knowledge they fear is impossibly sketchy. And the loss feels irretrievable. “I don’t know her favourite colour,” says Ren, stricken. Or the year she was born (“I’m not good with numbers”). Or where she was born (“Perth? Port Hope? Somewhere in Ontario?”).
They review their inheritance from a mother who was “undefeated at crib” and “could tell from the smell when a Sunday roast was done.” But “she had a big life…. I want more.”
The haunting new musical created by Walker and Dart is about that “more,” and how to claim it in the stories that connect us through time. It assembles stories from exceptional women who, though little known, are part of our lineage, an inheritance of female resourcefulness and resilience that gets us through the toughest times.
The host is a mysterious sage (the engaging Ainsley Hillyard, also the movement director) who emerges in a puff of smoke at the outset and free-associates enthusiastically. “Grief,” she tells ren, “is just lovesickness in reverse, working its way out again.” We should all have have a life coach this empowering.
From the murk of the past this impresario conjures a series of characters, each with a remarkable personal story mined from history by Dart, and an original Walker song, melodic and artful, in a variety of styles. It’s a show for ren’s benefit; they watch together.
The characters are vividly played, in multiple high-contrast assignments, by Laura Raboud, Larissa Poho, and Helen Belay, strongly dramatic singer/actors all. As a Gold Rush era seal hunter and prospector, a “matriarch of the North,” for example, Belay recounts a terrible winter journey (“a hard slog,” as she puts it mildly), from Michigan to Whitehorse. Hers is a bluesy song, “the risks I would take for the life I would make….”
One of the memorable characters played compellingly by Pohoreski owns the story of a hair-raising life-and-death border-crossing journey, through an eastern European forest on foot, in 1948. And she sings a striking song about finding shards of memory “in everyone I meet.” Among Raboud’s characters, each with haunting Walker songs, are a seer, and a wife who takes arms against her abuser in a tragic, thrilling way. “How do you know … when it’s time to fight?”
Walker’s score and lyrics are one of the great pleasures of the production. The songs, lyrical and catchy, are custom-crafted for characters who are distinct in personality and time. The star singer-songwriter is a discovery for musical theatre, which should claim her right now.
The musical is a tribute to storytelling, and a kind of anthem to our connectedness — in moments of grief and loss when we feel the most alone and need them most (now, for instance). “We forget, we learn, we remember.” It’s story time.
ren & the wake
Composer and lyricist: Lindsey Walker
Playwright: Megan Dart
Directed by: Beth Dart
Performer collaborators: Helen Belay, Candace Berlinguette, Marguerite Lawler, Larissa Poho, Laura Raboud, Ainsley Hillyard
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn
Running: through May 7