Saturday 1 October 2016

Comfort Cottages spins a cute retirement fantasy 
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Aunt Kitty has died. And though estranged from her family, she has left niece Katherine what in the Depression would be known as an auto court -- six individual cottages rented by travellers. For 40 years Aunt Kitty's motel has provided comforts to ever-arriving clients even though the No Vacancy sign was perpetually lit up. Pressure is now on to convert the land to its so-called highest and best use. Kitty has willed that Katherine must manage to stay open for one year to greet the regulars. Reason? To explain to each of them personally in a loving, kindly way that their feel-good home-away-from-home [figure it out...] is about to shutter up for good. Otherwise the plot will be sold lickety-split and the entire take given over to the truckers' union benevolent fund. Katherine corrals three of her chums to help out with the challenge. She promises each of them a 1/4 cut of the eventual profits from re-development if together they pass Aunt Kitty's test.  

How it's all put together : The play's fun is its characters. Not only the lifelong girl friends who, of course, have their issues. But also the clients. An in-the-closet cross-dresser who doesn't even know he is one. A man who's pined for 40 years over a not-so-secret love. Catalyst in the action is neighbour Tom, a snoopy gossipy ex-mall cop widower who wants to blow the cover off what Katherine blithely calls The No Tell Motel because he stands to profit from the combined parcels' immediate development.

There's a wee bit of pathos in all this, too. "I thought early retirement would be liberating but I just feel unplugged," Katherine (Merrilyn Gann) laments, a common enough complaint heard once folks quit their day jobs after decades of familiar toil. Belle (Marlee Walchuk) is freshly widowed from Bert and is lonely. Flighty flippant Flo (Annabel Kershaw) would have been a regular at Dal Richards' Panorama Roof dancing her toosh off in her slinky shimmery silky threads. Then -- doesn't every group have one? -- there's Eva the born-again hippie fortune teller masseuse (Suzanne Ristic).

When bug-eyed Tom (Vince Metcalfe) goes public with his claim Comfort Cottages is nothing but a brothel and a grow-op, the site is soon surrounded by both well-armed cops and indignant placard--wielding angry moms & dads in Trump-ish "Lock 'em up!" rant-mode.

What the show brings to the stage : Clearly the set-up is for lots of ribald by-play and heavy breathing. Mostly, though, it's an endless string of double entendres particularly in Act I as each of the clients' secrets come out of the shadows and into the light. In Act II the kinds of natural tensions among lifelong girl friends emerge and a likelihood their get-rich scheme will implode long before year's end. 

Dramatic and situational irony works throughout this original script written by Jane Clayton and Judy Ginn Walchuk who are residents of the PAL retired actors' complex beneath the 8th floor stage . The play's fun is how The Four Chums greet and treat Aunt Kitty's former clients who don't know Kitty has gone to geisha heaven. The women don't just kick the men out, of course, else there'd be no play. Stories and expectations and benign couplings occur among them all that charm more than they surprise. Age changes each of us and wisdom creeps in.  As Tom wryly notes : "These ain't girls here. They haven't been girls since Elvis left the building!"

Production hi-lites : WGT's Artistic Director Anna Hagan directs the show and she cast it expertly. Her blocking of the nine characters in the diminutive PAL room -- bleacher seats flanking the small stage north & south -- was crisp and definitive. The actors' flow and physical interaction were equal to the challenges of the space. 

Most outright fun, judging crowd reaction, was the cross-dressing Simon (Terence Kelly), a kind of toned-down Klinger from M.A.S.H. When he slips into Flo's gowns and becomes Simone, there's fun afoot : "I feel comfortable, strong, confused...!" he tells her. As Belle, the mediator and cookie maven, Marlee Walchuk's role was nailed squarely by the writers.  Sgt. Tom, the camouflaged ex-mall cop, was a goofy but lovable caricature who talked to his wife Ange's ashes in the urn he carried with him constantly as he snooped and spied and plinked his ukulele dreaming of Hawaii. (The closing background overlay of Brudda Iz -- Israel Kamakawiwo'ole singing his iconic "Over The Rainbow / It's a Wonderful World" cover -- was choice.)

Keith Martin Gordey plays Aunt Kitty's faithful but unrequited lover Big Ed warmly -- quite reminiscent of Ben Jonson as Sam the Lion in Peter Bogdanovich's classic move The Last Picture Show. And speaking of movies, Steve James as lawyer Adam is a Pierce Brosnan soundalike if ever were one.

Personally I found Eva's lines and soliloquies consistently some of the best, e.g. : "How did we go from Little Women to Lord of the Flies...?" she demands to know before she escapes back to her mushroom-infested camper van. "Do you know where you're going?" Big Ed asks her. "No, but I will when I get there!" she flips back.

This production is pure & genuine community theatre as it's supposed to be done. While over the run the necessary tightening of lines in timing and cadence will surely occur -- the tailing minutes of Act I particularly lost momentum -- overall there's a Big Chill kind of feel-good vibe that embraces the entire evening. 

Who gonna like : Not surprising, relatively few of the Gen X / Gen Y cadres were in attendance at Friday's world premiere of this play. But folks at or in or soon-to-face the almost certain disorientation that retirement foists upon them will surely relate to the mental adjustments retirees face. Lifelong women friends facing an uncertain future -- "Remember, I have nowhere to go and no money to get there!" is how Flo puts it -- manage comic interplay and empathy and power in ways often foreign to us men. There is enchantment along with just plain fun in this evening's local outing.

Particulars : Original script by Performing Arts Lodge creators Jane Clayton and Judy Ginn Walchuk. Produced by Western Gold Theatre. Presented at the PAL theatre, 581 Cardero Street in Coal Harbour. Scheduled run September 30 - October 23. Saturday-Sunday matinees @ 2 p.m.  Evening curtain Tuesday - Saturday @ 7:30 p.m. Box office 604.363.5734 or tix via the site

Production crew : Director Anna Hagan.  Set Design Glenn MacDonald.  Costume Design Naomi Lazarus.  Lighting Design John Webber.  Sound Design Chris Allan & Javier Sotres. Choreographer Michel Guimond. Stage Manager Tanya Mathivanan. Assistant Stage Manager Andy Sandberg.

Performers : Dave Campbell (Roger). Merrilyn Gann (Katherine).  Keith Martin Gordey (Big Ed).  Steve James (Adam).  Terrance Kelly (Simon).  Annabel Kershaw (Flo).  Vince Metcalfe (Sgt. Tom).  Suzanne Ristic (Eva).  Marlee Walchuk (Belle). 

N.B. WGT originally performed this show over a week-end in June, 2015 as what WGT calls a staged-reading -- all actors with script-in-hand -- after just three (3...!) days rehearsal time. Some lines in the review above are repeated and/or revised from BLR's review of that show.

Addendum : Co-author Judy Ginn Walchuk says this in the program's Playwrights' Notes :

Before there was PAL, Jane and I imagined and joked about the type of housing that might be available for single, senior women with low incomes, and the spark was ignited for Comfort Cottages. The concept grew and flourished as friends, neighbours and family encouraged and supported this idea of play writing.

I want to tank Anna Hagan for taking two dingbats seriously, believing in us and following through with suggestions on how to complete this project. I also want to thank my co-writer, Jane, for being so generous with her imagination and with and for expanding her technical knowledge while typing, retyping, formatting, swearing, updating, weeping, inserting and printing 22 rewrites of this script while keeping our friendship intact.

I could never have imagined that I would have taken this journey at my age and am truly grateful to everyone that has handled this project with such love and care. Thank you all.


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