Edmonton’s Walterdale Theatre, now in its 55th year, continues the important by largely forgotten tradition of the Little Theatre Movement, which took as its mandate the engagement of communities and live theatre in each other. The Walterdale has, like other community theatres, nurtured amateur theatre workers – playwrights, actors, directors and technicians and thereby seeded successive generations of professionals. The Walterdale has also engaged the community around it both through the writing and production of powerful drama and, perhaps more importantly, by putting up on the stage our friends, our neighbours, and, in the end, ourselves. The latest product of the Walterdale’s “Cradle to Stage program, Eric Rice’s Starless movingly shows off all the best things of community theatre.
Rice’s drama, a day in the life of Ralph and Mary, a homeless couple, is firmly rooted in the geography known so well to both the audience and the players. The Park where Ralph and Mary spend their nights is next to the Walterdale Playhouse. The Church is a few doors north on 104th Street, past the Library where young Paul searches internet to help his friends. The coffee shop where Ralph nibbles a muffin and meets the blogger, Amanda is a block south, on Whyte Avenue. The audience knows, with some dread, that across the street from the Park is a funeral home, never mentioned in the play, but looming unnamed throughout.
The concrete rooting in the community reminds me of the way Brad Fraser unselfconsciously made Edmonton the uneraseable seting of Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love — even Denys Arcand couldn’t erase Rose Bowl Pizza, Flashbacks and CFRN from his cinematic version. And, further afield although identical in toponym, I think of how Elizabethan villages north of London are the necessary geography of the sadly underknown play, The Merry Devil of Edmonton. By so closely marking out the geography of Ralph and Mary’s kingdom as the familiar few blocks at the heart of Old Strathcona, Rice tells his audience that Ralph and Mary, although not portrayals of actual individuals, are not simply types, not Platonic homeless people in som sort of abstracted theatre space. Ralph and Mary are inhabiting *our* space, and we are inhabiting *their* space, and that space is quite simply daily life. All the world is *this* stage.
This is, of course, amateur theatre, so there are rough edges. Most polished is Rice’s script, having been rolled about in the nine months of Cradle to Stage. The set is happily minimal: a wall or two, a park bench in the centre, a church door upstage centre, beside the Walterdale Tree. Set and props assist the script, nothing more. And no more is needed.
The performances, are varied, but on the whole a big cut above what one might expect from amateur theatre. These actors are only amateur in that they aren’t being paid tonight. Mark Anderako’s Ralph is flawless and quirkily mannered — I imagined Lear played by the most eccentric form of Nicol Williamson — oh to have seen Williamson’s Lear in Wales in 2001!
Dave Wolkowski’s Constable and his smaller role as the Landlord have a certain Steinbeckian bombast which for me spoke to the characters meaning as something other than simply Cop or Slumlord. Wolkowski’s characters represent all the forces of social order — forced social order — which so terrify Ralph.
Monica Maddaford’s Mary is suitably warm and maternal, the strong but terribly vulnerable centre of the play. There is no question why Ralph seeks her so desperately.
Stephanie O’Neill’s Amanda, the blogger/journalist out to change the world/get her story is painfully blinkered and defensive, and a painfully sympathetic character. Amanda is what everyone with privilege wants to be, and she shows us the dangers of our desires to “fix” things for people.
Jim Zalcik simply *is* the artist who chats with Ralph and Mary, and, in other scenes, the Priest who gently wants to help them.
Everyone in the play wants to help Ralph and Mary, but it is only young Paul, played by equally young Carter Kockley, who actually listens to them, who asks questions and listens to their answers, who asks what they want, who does what they want — who actually helps them, however futilely in the end. Hockley is comfortable and at ease on stage, doing a more than creditable job as Paul. Like many young actors, Hockley sometimes delivers his lines hastily, but that is a minor quibble .
Something I would like to especially note is how nicely the production worked the title theme of stars into the evening. From the artist’s revisioning of Van Gogh’s Starry Night in black and white, through the description of night skies, both starless, light polluted urban ones and aurora-filled nights of the North, to the ingenious choice of Don McLean’s Vincent as the music leading us into the intermission. In fact, Starless is Star Filled on so many levels.
Eric Rice’s Starless is a play I can see going places. What the play desperately needs is to be given more time with audiences — this week long run is far less than it deserves. A run at the Fringe would certainly be worthwhile, but, to be honest, I dream of a run of Starless on a Gazebo Park-filled, decidedly Edmonton stage in Toronto, Montreal or Halifax.
Starless runs at the Walterdale Playhouse in Old Strathcona only until May 17, so get down there!
(For another pretty much completely positive take on Starless, have a look at “Starless Shows Us Another Side of the Interactions Right In Front of Us” from After the House Lights.)