Locked out by a union? Whaaaat? Allan Morgan’s one-man show I Walked The Line comes to Chinook Series 2020

Allan Morgan in I Walked the Line. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I could not believe it! I could not get my head around it!” declares Allan Morgan.

The veteran Vancouver-based actor, whose conversation rolls in exclamation points, is known to Edmonton audiences since he was the touring productions of The Overcoat and the Electric Company’s Studies in Motion (“I ran jiggling across the stage naked!”). This amiable and highly amusing theatre artist is talking about the bizarre situation that proved the inspiration for his solo memoir play I Walked the Line. It joins the 2020 Chinook Series Friday for three performances under the Workshop West Playwrights Theatre banner. 

If you’re an actor, “strike” usually means taking the set apart on the last night of the show. But when your day job between engagements is working for a union? And you and your fellow workers get locked out … by union management? Surely that’s a contradiction in terms, right? You’ve fallen down a rabbit hole into the wonderland where contradictions live, right? 

Both theatrically and in subject matter, Morgan’s I Walked the Line has a highly unusual pedigree. For one thing, it was commissioned by a theatre manager friend, who also funded a couple of workshops, the lighting, the design — and even paid for a premiere run at Intrepid Theatre in Victory. When does that happen?

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I Walked The Line started as a classic actorly response to a classic actorly crisis of income. When Morgan had a “dry spell” in theatre gigs five years ago — “it was getting depressing, really black” — he got himself a job working for a union, as a mail clerk. “I was scared shitless,” he recalls.; I knew nothing about mail clerk-ery. Hey, just like the movies, I was the guy in the bowtie who starts at the bottom and rises up!”

Union HQ was a sprawling building. “Everyone worked alone in their own cubicle. And as the mail guy I’d go through twice a day and pick up and deliver their mail, and talk to every single person there…. After a while I started decorating the mail cart, with lights, for national holidays and people’s birthdays. And people would start putting out candy bowls to keep me there longer.” Morgan laughs. “I pollinated the building!”

Mostly his co-workers were “older women from the suburbs, working as clerks or secretaries or assistants to lawyers or labour relations people. And I was the gay actor guy from downtown…. They and I would never normally have met. But over time we became very close.”

Morgan was the de factor building “social convener,” he laughs. For a workplace Pride Week gathering he worked up a piece he called Pride, 0 to 60, “about how my generation had grown up with one foot in the psychiatric/ medical definition of homosexuality” before the era and the social milieu for gays evolved. In time it became a solo show Pride for the Young Gay, the Un-Gay, and the Jaded Queen In All Of Us.

In I Walked The Line, Morgan tells his personal story of going on strike with his fellow employees against the union they worked for. “They were trying to take away sick days, lower our pay… and they locked us out. A union! People were flabbergasted. I was appalled. I come from a union family…. I don’t mention the name in the play. But it was the British Columbia Nurses’ Union.”

When the strike ended Morgan finally went back to work in the mail room — for a day. Then he was summarily fired, and marched out of the building. On a snow day, to add insult to injury.

There was, however, a taste of sweet revenge attached to the whole affair, “Jacobean really,” as he says brightly. Morgan’s face, plastered “on a giant poster … like Norma Rae,” advertised I Walked The Line at the Massey Theatre in New Westminster, at each bridge going in and out of that suburb. And he feels sure the union managers had to drive by it on the way to and from work every day. “They may have won the battle but I won the fucking war!” Morgan says cheerfully.

The other bonus was the affectionate support of his co-MoveUp workers. They showed up en masse on opening night, very excited to discover that they were in a play and “I was telling their story,” as he says. “It elevated every thing they did. They were crusaders!”

PREVIEW

Chinook Series 2020

I Walked The Line: a play about unions, treachery, solidarity, Porta Potties & baked goods

Theatre: Bread & Roses, sponsored by The Other Guys Theatre and presented by Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

Written by and starring: Allan Morgan

Directed by: Ross Desprez

Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Friday through Sunday

Tickets: chinookseries.ca or at the door   

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“Is anybody waving back at me?” Dear Evan Hansen at the Jube. A review.

Stephen Christopher Anthony and the touring company of Dear Evan Hansen, Broadway Across Canada. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

What does it feel like to live in a buzzing world of cross-hatched ever-escalating and fading images and phrases, a metastasizing, translucent tangle of entries, posts, links, tags, photos? Where the music of the spheres (not to mention the soundtrack of your identity) is swooshing Send’s and dinging Delivered’s?

The moment you enter the theatre, that’s what hits you in David Korins’ design and Peter Nigrini’s gorgeous perpetual-motion projection thicket of Facebook and Twitter feeds for Dear Evan Hansen.

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The 2016 Tony Award-winning musical (nine nominations, six wins including Best Musical) arrives at the Jube under the Broadway Across Canada banner. And with it a misfit hero for our time. He’s a lonely, awkward high school senior, pathologically shy, isolated by severe social anxiety. In fact, as played, beautifully, by Stephen Christopher Anthony, the title character is anxiety on legs (New York magazine once called Dear Evan Hansen, the “feel-anxious Broadway musical” of the decade, a line to savour).

Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

As Evan, the slightly-built Anthony gives us a character (with a light, supple voice) who hasn’t got the confidence to be lanky. Stooped and cringing at age 17, he’s a bundle of nerve-endings. His responses trail off, sometimes into silence, sometimes into wispy fading giggles. Amongst his nervous tics are tendencies to swipe one hand on his pants (in case it might be sweaty), and brush his hands over his eyes (in case they might be sweaty too). He can’t seem to stop apologizing, for everything including his apologies. His arm is in a cast that none of his classmates feel moved to sign; that’s how invisible Evan Hansen is.

A self-help letter that he’s written to himself, as per instructions from his therapist, ends up inadvertently in the hands of the school bully Connor (Noah Kieserman). Evan is traumatized. When Connor kills himself a few days later, his parents (Claire Rankin, John Hemphill) assume that the letter in his pocket is their kid’s suicide note, and that the boys are best friends.

Stephen Christopher Anthony, John Hemphill, Claire Rankin, Stephanie La Rochelle in Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Evan can’t quite bring himself to tell them the truth. Partly it’s desperate eagerness for affection, the kind you get from giving people what they really really want. Partly it’s empathy; he wants to assuage the grief of sad, needy people. Partly he hungers for connection to his secret crush, Connor’s sister Zoe (Stephanie La Rochelle, in a lovely alert performance, full of subterranean longing).

As Anthony’s captivating performance tells us, the motivation for the lie is complex and shaded. But it’s thoroughly believable, both in the musical itself — book by Sam Levenson, music and lyrics by Benj Hasek and Justin Paul, the team who created the La La Land score  — and the excellent performances of Michael Greif’s production. Incidentally, a sizeable proportion of the impressive cast is Canadian, alumnae of the Toronto Mirvish production of 2019. Don’t you wish you’d gone to a high school where the designated bully can sing like Kieserman? 

Hitherto an invisible outsider in his own life as you learn in the knock-out Act I number Waving Through A Window (“step out, step out of the sun/ if you keep getting burned”), Evan finds himself centrestage in a social media storm.

Stephen Christopher Anthony in Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

It gives him attention at school: kids who had shunned both him and the surly Connor suddenly claim the closeness of the bereaved. Eye-watering loss? Bring it. And it also gives Evan access under false pretences into a dysfunctional family that wants to understand, and embraces Evan as a kind of surrogate son to replace the one they’ve lost. Meanwhile his own single mother (Jessica E. Sherman), scrambling just to keep up with her shift work and her night courses, as well as the travails of her maladjusted kid, is loving but stretched too thin. And Sherman, who creates a kind of breathless, tightly-wound character who always feels late for her own life, shines in a lovely, expansive song, So Big/ So Small, that lays it out.    

More than any other contemporary musical — and hey, it’s a rare example of an original, not adapted from a movie or a book or an animation or a comic — Dear Evan Hansen had a lived-in feel, with its  knowingness about the social media maze, and its uncontrollable, viral nature. Social media are the modern mythologizing machine, fuelled by the illusion of connectivity. The kids barely look at each other when they talk, they face forward or down, since they’re so used to “communicating” via electronic devices.

The world that engulfs Evan wants to own a tragedy and create a myth (the myth of Connor and the redemptive power of perfect friendship), even if the links have to be faked. One beaming over-achiever (Ciara Alyse Harris), keen to chalk up some community service points for her college application, launches a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for “The Connor Project.” Jared (Alessandro Costantini), an amusingly cynical tech-savvy smartass who writes emails from a fake account, flogs Connor merch. “You’re almost ‘popular’,” he tells Evan. “Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles.” Exit lines? “So what else did you completely fuck up?” He’s got a million of ’em; Costantini is note-perfect.

In You Will Be Found, an Act I Evan anthem, powerfully sung by Anthony and reprised in Act II as he is increasingly trapped by his own lie (and “found” begins to mean “found out”), he sets out his existential crisis: “Have you ever felt like you could disappear? Like you could fall, and no one would hear?” Dear Evan Hansen captures that feeling in such an under-the-skin, aspirational way that you can’t help but root for our hesitant deceiver — although the ending is a validation that, later, you’ll wonder how you bought into at the time. 

Suicidal despair and parenting angst, the teen heartbreak of being an outsider observer watching life’s rich pageant go by, the tension between wanting to be an individual and at the same wanting to be, well, extraordinary … it’s all there, the aerial view and view from the ground looking up “for forever.”   

REVIEW

Broadway Across Canada

Dear Evan Hansen

Created by: Sam Levenson (book), Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics)

Directed by: Michael Greif

Starring: Stephen Christopher Anthony, Stephanie La Rochelle, Jessica E Sherman, Claire Rankin, Noah Kieserman, John Hemphill, Alessandro Costantini, Ciara Alyse Harris

Where: Jubilee Auditorium

Running: through Sunday

Tickets: 1-855-985-5000, ticketmaster.ca

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From beyond the grave, a ghostly contact and a paranormal thriller: Séance at Fort Edmonton

Clare Mullen and Phil Zyp in Séance. Photo by Phil Zyp.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Here’s a clammy thought for a winter night: the boundary between this world and the one beyond the grave is porous.   

In Séance, the paranormal thriller that comes to the vintage Capitol Theatre at Fort Edmonton Park this Valentine weekend, magician/playwright Ron Pearson will demonstrate. Prepare to be haunted; séances are by definition interactive (and sometimes have unexpected results, as we know from Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit). . 

It starts with death. “A woman has been brutally murdered at the Selkirk Hotel,” says Pearson of a show he first unleashed on audiences at the 1998 Fringe, and revived three years ago in a slightly altered story (the woman was buried alive). In any case her ghost will not stay put; she roams the streets of Edmonton. Which is why a pair of paranormal investigators, ghostbusters, are on the case to make contact in the next world, “to put her restless spirit to rest.”

In Séance, Pearson, not only a virtuoso magician/illusionist/street performer himself but a magic history scholar, re-creates a Victorian Spiritualist meeting, of the kind attended by such luminaries as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Abraham Lincoln. And he crosses it with a version of the “Spook Shows” which had their heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s.

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Pearson warms to his favourite subject, with examples and context. The American Davenport Brothers, he explains, famously had a wooden “spirit cabinet” in which they were tied up. “Musical instruments would play, and things would fly out the top.” Late-period Houdini made a point of exposing them as frauds who exploited a repertoire of illusionist tricks to create their “supernatural” effects.

In Spook Shows, “there would be a horror or mystery show on screen. And the lights would go out. And ghosts would grab you,” says Pearson. “By the late 1950s, the Spook Shows had stopped,” not least because when the lights went out, gangs of boys would throw darts at the screen. It’s “one of the great regrets of my life,” he says, that he missed seeing an example in Edmonton in 1972. Magicians don’t forget. 

Clare Mullen in Séance, Ghostwriter Theatre. Photo by Phil Zyp.

Mediums and psychics make their money from people’s intense desire to believe, their hunger to hear from deceased relatives one more time. And most use illusionists’ trickery, says Pearson, whose archive of plays includes Orson Welles’ Last Magic Show and most recently Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs (about the notable escapologist who came up against Houdini), which premiered at the Roxy last season and then ran at the Fringe. “Most psychics can be exposed,” Pearson says, citing spiritualist M. Lamar Keene’s  book The Psychic Mafia. “There are so many fakes…. But if people want to believe, they will.

Magic and illusions are part of the skill set chez Pearson. Fringe audiences will remember Pearson’s interactive vintage side shows for a toonie in tents on the festival midway, starting with Spider Lady. The current production is a family affair. Pearson’s wife actor/playwright Claire Mullen co-stars with Phil Zyp. Their daughter Molly Pearson, an accomplished stage manager currently preparing for the Citadel production of The Garneau Block, directs.

PREVIEW

Séance

Theatre: Ghostwriter Theatre

Created by: Ron Pearson

Directed by: Molly Pearson

Starring: Claire Mullen, Phil Zyp

Where: Capitol Theatre, Fort Edmonton Park

Running: Friday and Saturday, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.

Tickets: fortedmontonpark.ca or at the door

  

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Playing the game: culturecapital, that is, the custom-made trading card game about the performing arts industry in Alberta

culturecapital. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Two brainy Vancouver-based performance artists with an appetite for games have custom-made one for us — an original collectible trading card game about the performing arts industry in Alberta.

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Welcome to culturecapital, by the team of Milton Lim and Patrick Blenkarn. The Vancouver-based pair have assembled interviews with local artists, four years’ worth of public funding data, and reflections on their own touring experience in order to create a game specific to this place. And culturecapital, introduced to artists in Vancouver in prototype form, is getting its first full-bodied public premiere — a four-day round-robin tournament followed by a grand finale — at the 2020 Chinook Series. The winner takes home 500 bucks cash. 

Which real Alberta companies will get an upward boost, or get buffeted by setbacks? Which strategies work in the current climate and which don’t? Which projects get public funding and get to be made, and which don’t? Touring, co-productions, risky ventures that pay off, or don’t … all are up for grabs in culturecapital. Your ticket to the action is a 72-card $21 deck. 

There are four kinds of cards that the players (who sit at tables made of flat-screen TVs, how cool is that?) use, in order: Companies, Grants, Projects, and Strategies. When you play a Company, it allows you to roll for Grants, which allow you to play Projects — and then Strategies to up the values of your Projects (and compete with your opponents’ Projects) to win over Communities. The player who ends up with the most Communities, wins.

Every aspect of the arts industry is covered, from idea to production. Hey, there’s even a “Critics Are Raving” Project card, with a “participatory, edgy” bonus. Apparently, it’s “Alberta’s wildest art-revue-turned-earth-shaking-dance-party”  — for which I’m listed as a host. BYOB. Another is 7h27min, “a mass choreographed spectacle of Albertans trying to get all their daily errands done while there’s still daylight.” Its designation is “participatory, trauma.”

culturecapital. Photo suppied

Check out a guide to play at culturecapital.card/chinook2020

The Chinook Series extended the invitation to Lim and Blenkarn at last year’s edition. Lim was in the cast of Hong Kong Exile’s multi-media dance show Room 2048 (“a dream machine for the Cantonese diaspora”), which has just finished a run at the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary. He was at the Banff Centre’s Cultural Leadership Program program last week, and made time for a joint call, with with Blenkarn in Vancouver, to chat about the why’s and how’s of their brainchild.  Edmonton is first to enjoy the full-bodied public experience; Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary follow, with their own editions of culturecapital. 

Research, reams of it, go into the game. The appeal was not the formidable mountain of data in itself. “We’re not statisticians; we don’t get off on spread sheets,” says Blenkarn amiably. “But looking at grant recipients and file reports has been enlightening…. Hard numbers are one thing, but the second part of research is talking to people.”

What should be on the game cards? Lim and Blenkarn consult locally, and there are dramatic regional differences. Albertans, for example, really wanted to note the role of casinos in funding the arts” and “the relationship between the political landscape and the arts community.” In Edmonton and Calgary, though, responses to questions about oil booms and busts were “wildly different,” they report.   

Artists have lots to say behind the scenes but tend to be ultra-cautious in public. Some of the most revealing and candid conversations about the industry happen in the bar after the show. The game, says Blenkarn, “is a way to keep those conversations going.”

“We take real things happening in the arts and try to translate them into the mechanics of a game,” says Blenkarn. “We look at funding bodies, and the way certain kinds of work or companies become more prioritized and increase in value … and how that affects what projects get to be made.. We’re looking to add cards to allow us to respond, say, to the Edmonton Arts Council’s latest strategy,” or #MeToo, or the push for diversity in casting.   

Why go to all the arduous labour of creating a game instead of fashioning, say, a satirical production? “A lot of our generation grew up with Pokemon cards,” says Lim. “Trading cards and ‘playground bartering’ are a way to create tangible value from something abstract…. We just got very tired of panel discussions as the main mode of discourse for the arts.” 

“We were trying to think of other ways we could have these very potent and important discussion…. there’s a long tradition in our respective theatre training (in devised performance) of using games to generate content onstage. Not theatre games. More ‘how do you win this situation that’s onstage?’.”

Games, as he points out, “have long been a symbol of the competition and the rat-race of modern economic life. … We’re taking back games, and using that form to to reflect on the arts ecosystem.” In a culture where the grants pool seems to be fixed, and the number of applicants jockeying for them increases, you’re kidding yourself if you think the industry isn’t fiercely competitive. “The game is already being played,” as Lim says.

Is culturecapital a satire? Lim and Blenkarn consider. “It’s a way to look at things that are problematic in our ecosystem and also the things we should celebrate….” says the former. The latter admits, laughing, that “there is something very funny about players arguing why White People The Musical should get funding…. We’re endlessly amused!” 

Games are largely untapped in onstage performance, they think. Major festivals haven’t exactly jumped, en masse, on including them. Yet, as improv companies know, “there’s something inherently theatrical about role-playing games.” Another Lim/Blenkarn project, in progress, is a video game, asses.masses, about revolutions, for an audience to play onstage, in front of an audience.    

You’re not an artist or an arts manager? It’s not an obstacle to playing culturecapital. “Anyone can enjoy the game,” assures Blenkarn. “Monopoly isn’t not just for hyper-capitalists and real estate moguls. Risk is not just for army generals.”

Have a peek at 12thnight’s survey of the Chinook Series lineup HERE.

PREVIEW

Chinook Series 2020

culturecapital

Created by: Milton Lim and Patrick Blenkarn

Where: round-robin tournament through Wednesday in ATB Financial Arts Barns lobby board room; championship final in the Westbury Theatre. Full schedule at chinookseries.ca

Running: through Wednesday, with final match Thursday.

Tickets: ($21 deck of culturecapital cards), chinookseries.ca

 

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Stunning, strongly sung, compellingly theatrical: The Invisible at Catalyst. A review.

The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Catalyst Theatre. Photo by dbphotographics

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, an Allied team of World War II super-warriors are recruited and trained, each with a specialty in the stealth warrior skill set. And then they’re unleashed behind enemy lines on a formidable foe. Their secret against-the-odds mission: To save the world.   

They are all women.

In Catalyst Theatre’s stunning, strongly sung new musical, that gives every classic scene of all-for-one camaraderie, every fierce declaration of intent or acknowledgment of risk, a particular lustre.

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In France 1940, this international band of elite secret agents — imagined by playwright/ composer/ lyricist/ director Jonathan Christenson and designer Bretta Gerecke from Churchill’s real-life secret SOE (Special Operations Executives) — are up against not only the Third Reich but the skeptical male establishment of their own country.

The so-called “weaker sex” — the followers, the stay-at-homes, the pep talkers, the second string — rise up to “fight back,” as one of Christenson’s early songs has it. As blood bombs spatter on a close-up sepia map of London on the back wall, the characters sing “can you imagine…?” and “all we thought was good is gone” and “would you just stand by?”

The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Catalyst Theatre. Photo by dbphotographics.

Newly re-worked from its Calgary premiere incarnation at Vertigo Theatre, The Invisible, with its compelling espionage teamwork story spun from real life history and its melodic score, arrives onstage with Catalyst’s startling signature high-style theatricality. Musical invention (Christenson), sound design (Matthew Skopyk), and detailed physical movement (choreographer Laura Krewski) are married seamlessly to Gerecke’s flamboyantly theatrical visual imagery.

Melissa MacPherson in The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Catalyst Theatre. Photo by dbphotographics.

An ingenious combo of dazzling noir-ish lighting and projections (redolent both of the period and of captioned graphic novels) make it possible to tell a story of wartime action heroes crossing the Channel by air or blowing up trains in northern France — on a stage that’s bare save for a dozen or so wooden chairs, and overhung with more. The chairs seem to come to life narratively, glowing in outline to conjure the characters who occupy them.

The Invisible is a story of secrecy, subversion, and espionage, spies in an encoded world of fathomless darkness and pinpoints of light, or on a grid like runway lights during a black-out. They step from one pool of light to another. Sometimes they’re half-lit by the eerie glow of the moon. Sometimes they vanish into a murky dark. “Nothing is seen, nothing is heard…. Here today, gone tonight,” as one ensemble number has it. Gerecke’s lighting is an active participant in that story. 

Melissa MacPherson in The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Catalyst Theatre. Photo by dbphotographics

As you gradually discover, in Christenson’s book and musical numbers (more varied in style than ever before in a Catalyst musical), the secret agents are distinct individuals. And the group dynamic is not without its tensions. At the centre of the operation, leader of “my girls,” is Evelyn, a wary Romanian-born spymaster based on the alluringly elusive historical figure of Vera Atkins. She’s played by the excellent Melissa MacPherson with a steely glint, a pack-a-day throaty voice, and the fierce, sultry edginess of a Marlene Dietrich.

A silhouette of Evie smoking against a blood-red moon is a fleeting whiff of James Bond. So, is she “M”? The nightmare Romanian tale that opens the evening — skeletons, buckets of blood, ghostly voices, a severed hand — belongs to her memory bank. And it says No.

Evelyn “tells” the story of The Invisible from her memory of a fraught time. She’s the brains behind her boss, an upper-class twit played to perfection by Kristi Hansen when she’s not being Dot, an amputee who’s always been denied opportunity to use her strategist’s smarts by her disability. She’s the most primly English of the international band of recruits.

The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Catalyst Theatre. Photo by dbphotographics.

There are exotic immigrants on the team, each with a specialty and a solo number. Christenson’s is a cast of very accomplished singers, who easily embrace his array of musical styles.

Jacqueline (Melanie Piatocha) is a crack sniper, who gets a lovely nostalgic number, a bit Vera Lynn, about England (the English rose) and France (the French lily). Anna (Marie Mahabal), a south Asian, is an expert code-breaker — with an operatic voice that shines in a  passionate number about the price tag on human sacrifice. The Polish-born Charlie (Justine Westby) is on damage control. There’s a Senegalese-Parisian courtesan-turned-chanteuse Maddie (Tara Jackson, whom we last saw knocking it out of the park as Celie in The Color Purple), who specializes in insinuating herself into male environments. She gets a fetchingly playful and sexy jazz number. And Amanda Trapp is Betty, a Canadian Cree with a knack for explosives, who knows something, as she says, about living under occupying forces.

The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Photo by dbphotographics.

There are rhythmic multi-syllabic chants (a Christenson favourite). There are wistful ballads and juicy ones, French chansons, a Weill-esque cabaret number, and intense odes of solidarity. The Invisible is perhaps Christenson’s richest song score yet. And the suspense attached to a dangerous espionage mission story pulses ahead in Skopyk’s sound score. The music is played live by a versatile onstage three-piece band (Christina Cuglietta, Stephanie Urquhart, Tatiana Zagorac).

It’s a fascinating story and homage to unseen heroism that comes to life, propelled by thoughts that the course of history can be changed by passion, will, and teamwork. Sounds a lot like theatre, come to think of it.

REVIEW

The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Theatre: Catalyst

Created by: Jonathan Christenson (book, music, lyrics) and Bretta Gerecke (design)

Starring: Melissa MacPherson, Kristi Hansen, Tara Jackson, Marie Mahabal, Melanie Piatocha, Amanda Trapp, Justine Westby

Where: Maclab Theatre, in the Citadel complex

Running: through Feb. 23

   

   

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The quest for happiness, one little item at a time. A review of Every Brilliant Thing, starring John Ullyatt, at the Citadel

John Ullyatt in Every Brilliant Thing, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

This will seem a wintry, back-handed way to start a review. But there are many reasons in advance to dread Every Brilliant Thing. Not so much because the dark subject of death by suicide is involved (cf Shakespeare, the Greeks, and other purveyors of tragedy). But because of the potential for drowning in a sentimental sea of tears: self-help advice from life-affirming companion characters, or brave and plucky survivor characters.

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No offence, shrinks, but there’s probably a reason the repertoire isn’t full of plays by mental health professionals. It seems to be damn hard to create a show with suicide in it that isn’t about suicide (this dark subject seems to overtake drama and pummel it into submission). But the English playwright Duncan Macmillan (Lungs) has actually succeeded. I brought an ample supply of Kleenex in my coat pocket. But I didn’t have to dip in, much.

Macmillan’s interactive 2014 play, which has a theatre full of people joining the cast of a solo show, is about a little boy whose mother is suicidally sad, and first tries to kill herself when he’s seven. For her benefit he starts a list of “brilliant things” that make life worth living. And the list, which doesn’t make her happy, grows and grows. It will even prove useful to the grown-up version of the little boy when he finds himself mired in sadness later on. “When I was younger I was so much better at being happy,” he says of his older self.     

On entering the Citadel’s Rice Theatre, where Dave Horak’s genuinely captivating in-the-round production is happening, you have the chance to create a sticky tag with your own “brilliant thing” on it. On my list: shows that include suicidal depression that have a light touch on a black and mysterious subject, and turn out to not be about suicide anyhow, but about our valiant attempts to make people we love happy, and our guilt when we can’t.

John Ullyatt, Every Brilliant Thing, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

To see John Ullyatt embracing an audience with a kind of warm, genial, unhistrionic hospitality — and making them feel it’s well within their compass to participate by becoming characters or embodying props, or calling out items on a list — is to see a master actor and performer at work. It’s charisma, of the kind that doesn’t draw attention to itself as actor-ly.

Ullyatt dresses down for the occasion; brown cardigans, the kind you wear over your pajamas, are, as you know, the universal sign of depression. He treats all his audience volunteers with kindness, empathy, and gentle amusement that theirs is a shared assignment. And he works easily with what they each come up with as dad, the school councillor speaking through a sock puppet, the veterinarian who puts down his dog, his English teacher, or his first great love. 

On opening night, every one of them was charming and looked good, and you had the sense they knew it. So then we could feel like a community of people who were doing a show together. It all seems closer to high-level improv than a play, though Macmillan writes in a witty, economical way.

The story emerges, in an unforced way, with numbered items read out by those audience members who’ve been handed cards by Ullyatt at the outset. #1: ice cream. #313 having a piano in the kitchen. #253,263: the prospect of dressing up like a Mexican wrestler. In a childhood spent asking his father “why?” questions, the one unanswerable (and unanswered) question is the “why” attached to his mother’s depression and her periodic attempts to end her life. I respect Every Brilliant Thing for resisting that presumption to explain. Audience participation that is an invitation for us to group-discuss why people get suicidal depression would be too ghastly to contemplate, much less buy a ticket for.

Without the ease-ful expertise of Ullyatt in balancing the comical and the heartfelt, the play and the inspirations of the moment, Every Brilliant Thing could seem awfully artificial and ingratiating. Instead it’s a touching human story about our shared struggles to achieve, and retain, happiness. Don’t be alarmed by that prospect; celebrate it.

REVIEW

Every Brilliant Thing

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donohoe

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: John Ullyatt

Where: Citadel Rice Theatre

Running: through Feb. 23

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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“It’s what happens when you say Yes!” Feel the breeze at the 2020 Chinook Series

Neema Bickersteth in Century Song, Volcano Theatre. Photo by John Lauener.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Chinook “is what happens when you say Yes!” laughs Vanessa Sabourin. She’s talking about the cutting-edge curated performance series that skips as lightly across artistic disciplines as the surprising winter breeze with the built-in warming trend. “Yes!,” as opposed to “No! What, are you out of your mind?”

Thursday the fifth annual edition of the Chinook Series blew into the TransAlta Arts Barn for two weeks of showcase productions, performances, workshops, panel discussions, even an original board game tournament. And Sabourin, co-artistic director with Kristi Hansen of Azimuth Theatre, whose Expanse Movement Arts Festival is one of the five arts outfits that collaborate on Chinook (along with Fringe Theatre, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre, Black Arts Matter, Sound Off Deaf Theatre Festival)  — calls Chinook “an unexpected adventure.” She uses words like “cross-over” and “collision,” “intersection” and “mash-up” in describing the line-up.

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There are possibilities everywhere in the program (check it out at chinookseries.ca) and you can’t go wrong by showing up and sampling widely (and watching The Lobbyists between shows). But here’s a little selection of shows that illustrate Sabourin’s Chinook lexicon, and her idea that Chinook should offer an array of “entry points” for audiences and artists alike.   

Aaron Wells and Allyson Pratt in Pawâkan Macbeth, Akpik Theatre. Photo by Donald Lee, The Banff Centre.

Pawâkan Macbeth, an Akpik Theatre production, is a 90-minute Cree re-telling of the Scottish play that’s been touring Treaty 6 nations before its arrival here for Chinook. It’s set in the prairies of the 1870s before Treaties ever got signed. And Shakespeare’s usurper whose vaulting ambition proves lethal is re-imagined as a fearsome Indigenous warrior consumed by an evil cannibalistic spirit, Wihtiko. Have a peek here at the 12thnight preview, in which I talk to playwright/ director Reneltta Arluk, the head of Indigenous arts at the Banff Centre.

“This piece has stuck with me,” says Sabourin, who saw the workshop production — a collaboration between Akpik Theatre, the Northwest Territories’ only professional theatre company, and Edmonton’s Theatre Prospero — in 2017. “It’s haunted me,” she says, not least for “the way it engages with communities, the layers beyond just the performative. That energy is relevant on all kinds of levels.”

Neema Bickersteth in Century Song, Volcano Theatre. Photo by John Lauener.

Century Song from Toronto’s Volcano Theatre, brought to Chinook by Azimuth and the Fringe, is a highly original, textless experiment in marrying Euro-classical song to choreographed movement from black diaspora culture. It’s the creation of Dora-winning soprano cum performance artist Neema Bickersteth, who appears onstage with three musicians, and two collaborators, director Ross Manson and choreographer Kate Alton.

Originally from St. Albert , Bickersteth studied opera at UBC. The show, she says, “was my experiment to see if I could, would it be possible?, to combine my black identity with (my life) as a classical singer…” in a 20th century of black women. She laughs. “Going through time in this alternate way. And not aging!”

“It came from curiosity … about me. Who am I? What can I do?”

Bickersteth’s family is from Sierre Leone, “where singing and dancing are just so normal,” she says. In the world of classical music,  that combination is not a given, to put it mildly.   

In part, Bickersteth says, Century Song draws inspiration from both Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Alice Walker’s In Search of My Mother’s Garden in the way it moves through time and multiple identities. The songs she chose are all wordless.

She wouldn’t call Century Song a play. “It’s closer to dance; the experience is more like going to an art show,” she says of a production with a sophisticated projection-scape. And audience reactions have varied wildly, sometimes from song to song.

In Rwanda, for example, Bickersteth reports that the audience would boo during parts they felt were slow or going on too long (a John Cage song with the pianist knocking on the piano in a rhythm score instead of playing it, for example). “John Who?” And they would “leap up in excitement spontaneously cheering” when they were delighted. They’ve been her favourite audiences. 

A classical singer who sings while dancing is in a very exclusive subset, to put it mildly, and has to be super-toned. Bickersteth is amused. “We’re supposed to hibernate in winter, and eat. It’s not natural to go to the gym….. But now I have a new skill!” 

Dana Wylie in The Making of a Voice. Photo supplied.

There are performances at every stage of development in the Chinook lineup this year, says Sabourin. The Makings of a Voice, by and starring singer-songwriter Dana Wylie, for example, is billed by Expanse as “a new musical performance in development.”

Balance Board, part of Black Arts Matter in collaboration with Workshop West, is a workshop, a staged reading of a new play by Bashir Mohamed, about Charles Daniel, the CPR employee who launched the first civil rights case in Alberta history when as a Black man he was denied entrance to a theatre to see King Lear.

There are plays: Workshop West’s contribution is a I Walked The Line, a one-man memoir by and starring Allan Morgan, a veteran West Coast actor of quick wit and charm. He’s remembering his between-engagements experience working as a mail clerk for a union — and getting locked out by his employer. Look for my 12thnight interview soon. 

Alexis Hillyard in Stump Kitchen: LIVE. Photo supplied.

In honour of Valentine’s Day, Chinook has high-contrast possibilities.  There’s a cooking show, in which the engaging Alexis Hillyard, joined by special guests like Janis Irwin and Caroline Stokes, cooks a vegan meal, one-handed, on the spot before your very eyes. Stump Kitchen: LIVE brings Hillyard’s weekly YouTube webcast Stump Kitchen to the stage as part of the Expanse festival.

NIUBOI in Space Dance. Photo supplied.

Under the Fringe Theatre banner, the experimental performance artist NIUBOI brings their Space Dance series to Chinook, with a special “queer prom” edition, especially for Feb. 14.

Sound Off, Canada’s only deaf theatre festival and a magnet for artists from across the country, is a burgeoning enterprise under award-winning artistic director Chris Dodd. Amongst its manifold offerings at Chinook it brings the comedy The Two Natashas: Our Life In Guyana, by Gaitrie Persaud and Natasha Bacchus, to Chinook. It’s a chronicle of the comical adventures of two deaf women linked by a mutual ex-boyfriend. 

culturecapital. Photo suppied

And, yes (to anticipate your question), there’s a board game. What festival is complete without one? Culturecapital is participatory, with trading cards and a round robin tournament and finals, and a $500 prize for the champion. It’s the brainchild of two very brainy artists, it’s based on research into local performing arts companies, and it’s actually about the way the arts ecology works and gets funded. I’ll post my interview with Milton Lim and Patrick Blenkarn soon.

It’s time to play. 

PREVIEW

Chinook Series 2020

Where: ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: through Feb. 16

Tickets: chinookseries.ca or at the door

  

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What makes life worth living? Every Brilliant Thing makes a list, and star John Ullyatt takes you through it

John Ullyatt, Every Brilliant Thing, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

He’s a mainstage leading man with character actor instincts. We’ve seen him clamour fearlessly through the audience, as the tarnished extrovert MC in Cabaret. Or talk to us directly as the stage manager in Burning Bluebeard. We’ve seen him literally mocking the fourth wall, as a gargoyle on the wall of downtown building, at the Street Performers Festival.

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But John Ullyatt says he’s never engaged an audience so closely, with such an intimate connection, as he does in the unusual solo show that opens Thursday on the Citadel’s Rice stage. Every Brilliant Thing, he says cheerfully, “is an uplifting play about depression. It’s joyful; it’s hopeful: the character I’m playing is a survivor.” And hearing people in the audience react in the couple of previews he’s done so far tells him that others are on that wave length, too. “I’ve watched them go through things….”

Don’t call it ‘audience participation’, Ullyatt laughs. “Really, it’s people helping me to tell this story. Willing participants. Easy, the easiest ‘audience participation’ ever.”     

The play, which began its ever-burgeoning global life at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe, is by the English writer Duncan Macmillan (with stand-up Brit comedian Jonny Donahoe). Macmillan, whose two-hander play Lungs was produced by Shadow Theatre last season, has told the Guardian that “theatre at its best is incredibly direct and incredibly interventionist.” And Every Brilliant Thing would seem to qualify on both counts.

The title refers to a list. The narrator who talks to us is a little kid who makes a list for his mom, who attempts suicide when he’s seven, of the little special things that make life worth living — “to try to make her happy,” as Ullyatt says.

John Ullyatt in Every Brillian Thing, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

It’s a list he works on supplementing for a lifetime as he grows up, goes to university, falls in love. “And then it comes back to help his dad, and later him.” Ullyatt says of the script (sent to him “out of the blue” by playwright/director Jane Heather) that “I immediately connected with it…. It felt so positive.” He enlisted director Dave Horak, who was similarly struck.

And, Ullyatt says, working on it has opened vistas of understanding for him about depression “and the sense of loss we’ve all felt in our families….”

John Ullyatt in Every Brilliant Thing, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

Rehearsing an interactive monologue that actually needs its audience is “well, interesting, and difficult,” Ullyatt laughs. Assistant director Bethany Hughes, he says, has been brilliant at fleshing out that dynamic for him until the show started previews. And the first-hand anecdotes, recorded in footnotes to the text by Donohoe and Macmillan are helpful, “a wonderful thing.… A common denominator is (a record of) the mood of the room.”

Now that the rights are available and productions of Every Brilliant Thing have proliferated across the country (the great improviser Rebecca Northan is currently doing one at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont.), there’s even a Facebook group for performers  to share their onstage experiences. Northan records one performance where a woman came the show with someone whose friend had committed suicide only five days before. “And the woman was glad she’d come; she said that it was a helpful thing for her.”

“The more we talk about it, the more you realize that everybody has been affected in their lives,” says Ullyatt. “You know how when you buy a new car you see that car everywhere?” He notes the work of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. Here’s a staggering statistic: “every day 11 people try to take their own lives in Edmonton.”    

In Horak’s production, staged in the round in the Citadel’s smallest house, “nobody’s more than 10 feet away from me,” says Ullyatt. “That’s really challenging to stage. And there’s no slathering on of a character…. It feels very personal. And I feel very vulnerable doing it.”

“It feels very very raw to me…. It’s taken a great deal of courage: I have to give myself credit!” The fact the audience is enlisted to call out items from the list, and encouraged to stick post-it notes on the floor, is a signal of sharing that “takes the pressure off, and gives everybody a sense of ownership….There’s a lot of sadness, tragedy. But it’s a healing show.”

And as for the audience, don’t be alarmed by the dark subject matter, Ullyatt advises. “The show is very positive; there’s a resiliency about this person, who survives and shares his experience….” He cites the sage who said that “we tell stories because we need stories to survive.”

Every Brilliant Thing is an encouragement “to help each other, tell stories, look after each other.”

PREVIEW

Every Brilliant Thing

Citadel Highwire Series

Theatre: Citadel 

Written by: Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donohoe

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: John Ullyatt

Where: Rice Theatre

Running: through Feb 23

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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Shakespeare gets a Cree cosmology re-fit: Pawâkan Macbeth arrives for Chinook

Allyson Pratt and Aaron Wells in Pawâkan Macbeth, Akpik Theatre. Photo by Donald Lee, The Banff Centre.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Feel the breeze. Chinook, the resource-sharing multi-disciplinary series devoted to melting our preconceptions and expanding our experience of live performance and creation, is at hand.

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It’s a measure of creative vision (and chutzpah) that the 2020 edition of the festivities — shared by Workshop West Playwrights Theatre, Fringe Theatre, the Expanse Festival, Black Arts Matter and Sound Off Deaf Theatre Festival — opens with a show that reimagines a heavyweight classic, and expands its horizons.

A Community Telling of Pawâkan Macbeth: A Cree Takeover sees the swift and brutal Shakespeare tragedy through the fascinating lens of Cree cosmology, and re-locates it to the harsh war-ravaged world of the Plains Cree in the 1870s, before the numbered Treaties were signed. The Scottish war hero who discovers in himself an unquenchable fire, a murderous and fatal ambition fuelled by his wife, is, in this telling, a great Okihcitâw warrior. He is consumed by an evil cannibal spirit, Wihtiko, who urges him to assassinate the Chief.

The production is the work of Akpik Theatre, the Northwest Territories’ only professional Indigenous theatre, which arrives from its tour of Treaty 6 nations to be part of Azimuth Theatre’s Expanse Festival at Chinook. Its inspiration, as Inuvialuit Cree Dene actor/ playwright/director Renaltta Arluk, Akpik artistic director explains, came from the young people of the Frog Lake First Nation.

Aaron Wells and Allyson Pratt in Pawâkan Macbeth, Akpik Theatre. Photo by Donald Lee, The Banff Centre.

“Originally we were going to do The Tempest,” she says of Akpik’s Frog Lake residency and the initial idea of creating an Indigenous adaptation. “And I’m really glad we didn’t.” The community just didn’t relate to the fantastical late Shakespeare romance. Arluk thinks The Tempest’s “coded language and the colonial attitudes” had something to do with that.

Macbeth, though, really spoke to them. Why? What nailed it was “the idea of greed in Macbeth,” says Arluk, a Fort Smith native who grew up in Yellowknife (and became the first Aboriginal woman, and the first Inuk, to graduate from the U of A’s theatre program). “Greed and power.” The Wihtiko, she says, wasn’t some abstract metaphor or historical reconstruction; it’s  a living part of the culture and Cree cosmology. 

The last time we talked, Arluk, the first Indigenous woman to direct at Stratford (Colleen Murphy’s The Breathing Hole) was at Toronto airport en route west to her exciting new gig as head of the Banff Centre’s Indigenous Arts. An 11-actor workshop version of Pawâkan Macbeth hit Edmonton for a few performances in 2017, in collaboration with Theatre Prospero.

Aaron Wells and Allyson Pratt in Pawâkan Macbeth, Akpik Theatre. Photo by Donald Lee, The Banff Centre.

This time, as a 90-minute no-interval Stratford Festival commission with six professional actors in the cast, Pawâkan Macbeth has been on an Indigenous tour, with a finale last week that took it back where it had begun, Frog Lake First Nation. “The main question it asks,” says Arluk, is “what makes people vulnerable to the dark energy of Wihtiko? What is it to be human?”

The setting is powerfully à propos. “In the late 1800s people are starving after the devastation of the buffalo. Famine leads to greed; it makes people susceptible….” 

As Arluk explains, “pawâkan” means dream spirit in Cree. Significantly, the Lady Macbeth figure in her play (and women have more presence than usual in Macbeth productions) is seven months pregnant.” Famine and fertility: “the people are trying to find power in a power-less situation.”

The last workshop incarnation of Pawâkan Macbeth didn’t in the end satisfy Arluk the playwright, she says. “We asked ‘what’s the best way to tell the story?’” And in a culture that values storytellers over playwrights the answer, for this new version, was to “break down the scenes and let the actors tell the story in their own words….”

Lights, music, shadow screens participate in this storytelling in Arluk’s play, which happens in a mix of Cree and English, and counterpoints scene development and storytelling. The latter, she says, is in her blood. “I grew up with storytellers. I’m a storyteller. And I still do it. Sometimes my son, who’s three, and I sit down and just make up stories together….”

Her Cree is getting better, but it’s not conversational yet, says Arluk, who was raised nomadically by her grandparents on the trap-line, hearing stories of the Wihtiko. Her  first language was English: “My mother is a residential school survivor; her language was taken from her. My grandmother was in a day home.” The production sought the advice of Elders and enlisted the services of Plains Cree language consultant and translator Darlene Auger. 

“I joined the tour last night,” Arluk said last week on the phone from Frog Lake. “And I heard lots of laughing. A lot of the jokes are in Cree.”

PREVIEW

A Community Telling of Pawâkan Macbeth: A Cree Takeover

Expanse Festival, Chinook Series

Theatre: Akpik Theatre

Written and directed by: Renaltta Arluk

Starring: Sophie Merasty, Joel Montgrand, Ally Pratt, Mitch Saddleback, Aaron Wells, Kaitlyn Yott

Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Saturday, full schedule at chinookseries.ca

Tickets: chinookseries.ca or at the door. 

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Catalyst’s new musical takes us into the girls’ club of elite secret agents. Meet the creators of The Invisible

Melissa MacPherson (centre) and the company of The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Catalyst Theatre. Photo by Citrus Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Espionage: Upstagers and exhibitionists need not apply. 

In the long-awaited new Catalyst musical that finally gets its Edmonton debut Friday on the Maclab stage, we infiltrate a shadowy, high-risk world of wartime spies where the job is all about non-presence — fitting in, fading outlines, covering tracks, vanishing into the landscape. And for invisibility, who better than women?

The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, the latest from the award-winning Catalyst team of playwright/ composer/ lyricist/ director Jonathan Christenson and designer Bretta Gerecke (Frankenstein, Nevermore, Hunchback and others), is unspooled from World War II history. Its source is the team of valiant female operatives sent behind enemy lines into the France of 1940 on life-and-death missions of sabotage, espionage, and propaganda.

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When Christenson, Catalyst’s artistic director, forever on the outlook for “stories with a Canadian connection but international resonances,” ran across The Man Called Intrepid, a first-hand memoir by Canadian-born agent William Stephenson, he was intrigued. That was two years ago, and Christenson followed that thread to the top-secret Special Operations Executive (“Churchill’s Secret Army”) that recruited and trained an elite corps of women agents and sent them into Europe and Asia.

Melissa MacPherson in The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Catalyst Theatre. Photo by Citrus.

It was among the international contingent of 50 women — American, British, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Indian, Romanian — recruited for the French section that Christenson found the characters for The Invisible. Some are based on real women. Melissa MacPherson, for example, plays Evelyn Ash, inspired by the Romanian-born spymaster Vera Atkins, the assistant to the head (male, of course) of SOE and in charge of female recruits. As a diehard anglophile, “more British than the British” as MacPherson says, Atkins was  likely the inspiration for Miss Moneypenny of James Bond fame. Others are fictionalized composites.

Designer Gerecke, who’s always part of the Catalyst creative process from the inception of the project, says “what fascinated me was the way that women work as spies, the way we’re tuned to glean information, and how different that is from the way men operate.… Men are built to fight; women are built to navigate danger.”

The stereotype is the seductress “to whom men tell all their secrets, on the pillow,” as Gerecke puts it. That’s not the kind of female spy at play in The Invisible. Gerecke cites the agent who rode her bike in France, everywhere unchallenged. “She was invisible; people just ignored her because everyone thought she was a kid.”

Who were they, these unsung unseen heroes, women who risked everything for the greater good at a crucial moment in history? “What struck me,” says Christenson, “is that they were all outsiders, women who didn’t fit the mould, or who weren’t ready to be contained by the mould. They were all women who wanted more — either accidentally or they were born that way.”

“They were self-defining women, all such strong personalities. And in the world we live in, it’s easy to subvert that in order to fit in.”

“It gave (normal) women the opportunity to be extraordinary,” says MacPherson. “Who knows what would have happened if the war hadn’t come along?….” For Evelyn, the galvanizing motive is “being a woman in a man’s world. And she was an advocate: she made sure the girls got paid, for example.” After the war she made a point of trying to locate all the women who had disappeared in the course of their espionage work, and to have them recognized, dead or alive. “She found all but one.”

Melissa MacPherson in The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Catalyst Theatre. Photo by Citrus.

Christenson calls The Invisible “a memory play,” and Evelyn, whose story is the centre of  the narrative arc, “a tortured, haunted figure.” She’s encircled by the kind of controversies that accrue when decisions are difficult, the double-cross cedes to the triple, and individual sacrifices are made for a larger cause. For Evelyn, says MacPherson, the play is “an exercise in atonement…. She’s telling her story, and then re-living it, recognizing her mistakes, her own fallibility.”

The agents were “a best-of team,” Gerecke emphasizes. “As in the best teams, all (the members) have different strengths; they’re stronger as a team than as individuals.” One was a virtuoso sniper; one a demolition expert.… They’re from very different backgrounds, with very different reasons for being with the team.

Christenson composed music with that diversity in mind. “Some of the numbers are inspired by the period, and each character has a moment to shine, musically (accompanied by the live onstage three-piece all-female band) …. One women is a Parisian chanteuse who gets a showy jazz/swing number, in keeping with the period but with a contemporary edge to it. Another song has a more German cabaret-style flavour. There’s musical theatre; there are pop and rock influences,” and a “contemporary opera-ish” number (adds Gerecke). 

No matter what their configuration, the repertoire of original Catalyst musicals is notable for the sophisticated ways in which, in sight and sound, they’re both of their period and contemporary. They rise from the page. “Frankenstein is a great novel,” grins Christenson. “But it’s a slog (to read).” “As is Hunchback,” says Gerecke. “Weirdly, we’ve been truest to period in this one.” And, after all, World War II is less than a century ago, “only a generation away.” 

“It’s about creating points of connection between each of the characters and the audience. You want them to invest early. And if the language is distancing, it takes so much longer to find those points of connection.”

Once they’d found their story, Christenson and Gerecke immersed themselves in research, a solid diet of spy novels for the former, spy movies for the latter. A year ago, writing started in earnest. The Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare met their first public at Keyano College in Fort McMurray last spring, and premiered in fuller form in the Vertigo Theatre season in Calgary (where the show received a record nine Betty Award nominations and won three).

In the meantime, Christenson, whose Catalyst m.o. is to regard every incarnation of a show as “a draft,” to be tinkered with and improved, has done some re-writing for the Edmonton premiere. And Gerecke has set about “taking the next step with projections … building a closer relationship between projected text/image and the performers.” 

The Invisible is not film noir in its storytelling, Gerecke says of the visuals. “It’s not that ‘half-light on a half-face under a bridge’ kind of show.” She laughs. “I went through a whole phase of being obsessed with mirrors — how  you can hide people and they appear somewhere else and they couldn’t have gone from here to there.” She tried mirrors on the ceiling to reflect the floor so that everything seemed to be happening on the vertical axis. That idea ended up in the reject bin, and she moved on.

What struck her about spy movies was the way they manage surprises, and “always catch you off-guard.” In the new musical, with its agents who appear and disappear in always surprising ways, “the set doesn’t create magical things; magic happens through sound, music, lighting, projections.” 

Melissa MacPherson in The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Catalyst Theatre. Photo by Citrus.

Playing with the idea of super-heroes took the pair into the realm of graphic novels. “We’ve been fascinated by graphic novel imagery and illustration, how to dial that into projections and have performers connect to text above them, behind them, appearing to come from them,” says Gerecke. Christenson says “we’ve been trying to find a theatrical vocabulary for that trope, for a balance between real-life women on one hand and something larger than just themselves on the other….” 

Christenson sighs. “It’s easy for us to forget the work that others who went before us did to make the world we live in possible.” The Invisible, he says, “is about honouring that…. People have been involved in the struggle for a fairer, more just, more inclusive world for hundreds of years. Their work paves the way for us to take the next step forward. ”

The women of The Invisible “live at a time with limited options…. They had to work ten times harder than men in the same roles would have…. I hope people leave The Invisible inspired by their stories, by their spirit of resistance, by the work they did to create a better world.” Says Gerecke, “to be energized to make change….” 

“War stories are mostly the territory of men…. Women are either victimized or left on the margins to deal with the fall-out,” says Christenson. “Telling a story where women are heroes not victims feels different,” Gerecke says. As MacPherson puts it, “these were (seven) women who worked in a covert way and remained that way.”

The slide towards a world that is morally untenable seems to be gaining momentum at the moment. Is it the sense that history is rolling backwards?  “You wake up one day and Trump just got elected president. And you ask how could that happen,” says Christenson. “And the answer is ‘it’s been happening for a long time’.” The real question of The Invisible, he says, “is one I’ve never had to ask myself before…. What would you risk your life for? How far would you have to be pushed before you step up and fight?”

PREVIEW

The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Theatre: Catalyst

Created by: Jonathan Christenson (book, music, lyrics) and Bretta Gerecke (design)

Starring: Melissa MacPherson, Kristi Hansen, Tara Jackson, Marie Mahabal, Melanie Piatocha, Amanda Trapp, Justine Westby

Where: Maclab Theatre, in the Citadel complex

Running: Friday through Feb. 23

   

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