By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“I’m not a weeper, I’m a snarler,” Joni Mitchell in old age tells us in the “theatrical collage” in her honour at Theatre Network. “I put the weeping in the songs…. I sing my sorrow, and I paint my joy.”
The sorrow and joy, the music and the painting, and the philosophical reflections that go into “snarling,” as she puts it in her sharp-edged way, are all part of Joni Mitchell: Songs of a Prairie Girl, named for a Mitchell compilation album for Saskatchewan’s centenary in 2005.
The creation of Wild Side Productions artistic director Jim Guedo isn’t exactly a play. And you wouldn’t call it a stage biography, a revue, or a song cycle either, though with generous elements of all of the above. It’s an imaginative kind of multi-angled multi-hued composite portrait painted in music and the legendary protagonist’s real-life spoken words — in different eras by five actors. And it’s set in motion, forward and backward, by memory and the passage of time.
The portrait of the artist that emerges from the dabs and brush strokes is of a true original, restless in spirit, exploring the corners of the canvas, wriggling out of categories as soon as they’re imposed. An unusually talkative and self-aware artist, Joni refuses to sit still for anything like a conventional linear rendering of her story. “If you change, they’re going to crucify you for changing,” she’s said in one of the interviews that yield up the text of the piece. “But staying the same is boring. And change is interesting. So of the two options, I’d rather be crucified for changing.”
Guedo’s inspiration is to defy chronology and superimpose five Joni’s of different ages on each other onstage — the Ingenue (Chariz Faulmino), the Free Spirit (Cayley Thomas), the Explorer (Kristi Hansen), the Critic (Cathy Derkach). So the oldest of them (Christine MacInnis, who has valiantly stepped into a large and dauntingly wordy role at the last minute, script artfully placed onstage) can confront her younger selves, and vice versa.
And they all sing together, as solos with back-ups or ensemble numbers, an insightful and well-chosen songlist of 22 from the Joni canon. The actor-singers are accomplished, and so is the excellent onstage band. Friday night’s performance was plagued by persistent (and I’m sure eminently correctable) sound problems, but the show feels musically fulsome.
Mitchell is a questing spirit, an artist who searches. And together the actors, assisted by her self-portraits, create a sense of experience getting gathered in the service of art. The bright exuberance of Fulmino (Yellow Taxi) co-exists with Thomas as the Joni who wrote Blue, and the thought that “songs are like tattoos/ you know I’ve been to sea before/ Crown and anchor me/ Or let me sail away….”
To Hansen as the Explorer goes the idea of leaving safety behind, expressed in Don Juan’s Reckess Daughter as “the eagle and the serpent are at war in me … these hectic joys, these weary blues.” And in Derkach as the Critic, closer in age to the Sage, you can see the lines drawn by anger and socio-political outrage in The Three Great Stimulants, accompanied by Mitchell’s self-portrait as Van Gogh with the bandaged ear.
Intriguingly, Joni Mitchell: Songs of a Prairie Girl is the second offering in Theatre Network’s inaugural full season at the new Roxy about a prairie-born artist with a starry international career. Like the first, Eugene Stickland’s The Innocence of Trees (an encounter between the older and the younger incarnations of the Saskatchewan-born painter Agnes Martin), Joni Mitchell: Songs of a Prairie Girl gathers the multiple selves of the artist. And it wonders about art, where it comes from, what it’s for, how it’s made.
Both Martin and Mitchell (who grew up in Saskatoon) capture something of the prairie landscape in their artistic sightlines. It’s the singer-songwriter, a voluble master of the apt and witty turn of phrase, who airs her views directly — on art and the influences and contradictions of the artist in an often hostile world. The big questions of life, love, and art appear, more elliptically and poetically, in Mitchell’s songs.
The stage designed by Guedo is an inviting memory chamber — candles, cushions, flowers, lamps, a grand piano — framed, and lighted by Larissa Poho, like a painting. And as in Joni Mitchell’s 1995 painting Middle Point (the image of a solitary woman in silhouette gazing out at the sea), you can make out the words Idle, Idyll, Ideal, Idol written on that frame. From time to time the Joni’s lean out to peruse us, or perch on it and look back into the ‘painting’ to watch each other.
The back wall is a curved and shimmery surface across which a fascinating array of images — many of them Mitchell’s own self-portraits — dissolve into each other, or morph into her landscapes. The multi-media design is Ian Jackson’s, and it’s a beauty.
The “present” of Guedo’s piece is the Joni who returned to performing in 2022 after seven years of learning to speak, walk, and sing following a near-fatal brain aneurysm in 2015. And her often acerbic commentary is well matched with MacInnis’s forthright air of abrupt judgment and wry amusement/bemusement about the hypocrisies of the world — the absurdities of national identity (is a salmon American or Canadian?) or chronological order (“a terrible idea”), false humility (“I prefer real arrogance”) or parental ideas about propriety, Saskatoon (“where I learned about bigotry”) or the patriarchal music industry status quo.
In the course of the evening with Joni, we learn about an impoverished childhood, a difficult mother-daughter relationship, and a battle with polio age nine (“a rehearsal for the rest of my life,” as she said), friendships across the racial divides of Saskatoon, the wayward streak of the artist-in-progress who habitually struck out for the roughest parts of town — mainly because the music was better.
A period of abject scrambling destitution in Toronto, and the kind of desperation to survive that would lead a 22-year-old to give up a baby for adoption — these are emotional peaks of a struggle-filled ascent from obscurity to celebrity. “Human nature … it’s all I had to work with.” You have to wrap your mind around Mitchell’s insistence she only took up music instead of pursuing her real love, painting, in order to cobble together enough to live. And as for folk music, she says, it just happened to be the currency of the time.
Mitchell’s imagery, both in her spoken insights and her lyrics, has a surprising wit to it. She says she emerged from the three-year period after the adoption feeling like “a cellphone wrapper on a cigarette package.” Her philosophical studies, pursued in solitary during a hermit period in B.C., include the thought that Nietzsche gets a bad rap, and “the Western mind has been playing half a deck for a long time.”
She spars at length with her younger selves about the tension between sensuality and clarity, the heart and the intellect in art. Apparently it’s a continuing concern, and the balance, as she explains (she’s a gift-of-the-gab explainer), gets adjusted at every age.
Mitchell’s life story, told in a non-linear way in the artist’s own words, is the context for the songs. And the presence onstage of the older Joni as a watchful observer, amused or skeptical, gives the whole enterprise the theatrical resonance that it’s happening in her mind. She is her own most insightful critic.
The show is a fascinating way of marrying an articulate multi-dimensional artist’s life and work. Both are ongoing, and both invite the audience to react in a personal way. “And there is a song for you/ Ink on a pin/ Underneath the skin/ An empty space to fill in….”
Check out 12thnight’s PREVIEW Q&A with creator/director Jim Guedo here.
Joni Mitchell: Songs Of A Prairie Girl
Theatre: Theatre Network in association with Wild Side Productions
Created, directed, and designed by: Jim Guedo
Starring: Cathy Derkach, Chariz Faulmino, Kristi Hansen, Christine MacInnis, Cayley Thomas
Running: at the Roxy through March 26