World War I alters a couple’s romantic plans in Kitchen Theatre’s area premiere of Mary’s Wedding
By James MacKillop
The two actors in Stephen Massicotte’s 95-minute Mary’s Wedding, now at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company, never change costumes. Charlie Edwards (Eric Gilde) is a rough farm boy somewhere in rural Canada, “far from the ocean.” He wears work clothes, suspenders on his pants and sports an Alfalfa Switzer haircut. The Mary of the title (Ellen Adair) is an elegant English immigrant of higher station. She’s taken ballet lessons. She’s always seen barefoot in a white nightgown, designed by Lisa Boquist. For a moment we assume this signals her femininity and vulnerability, but pretty quickly we realize she’s dreaming the entire thing, from 1913 to 1920, but not in any order.
Dream theory has undergone several upheavals since the old Freudian paradigm of dream-equals-unfulfilled desire was discarded. We know from our own dreams, even without studying them, that chronology is usually scrambled and that imagery can be so startlingly juxtaposed as to wake us. Massicotte’s play, a prestige hit in Canada in 2002 that has been produced widely since, reflects current thinking about dream theory and really takes dramaturgy where it had not trod before. A free association will allow us to see a lightning storm on the plains as a prefiguration of rockets over no man’s land on the battlefield, thunder becomes artillery and harmless feed bags on the farm quickly double as sandbags on the trenches. And so it is with persons.
Although actor Gilde narrates the beginning of the action in his own voice, telling us that some heavy moments are coming, the love story about the two young people is not entirely what Mary’s Wedding is about. With World War I at the center of the action, we know it is going to intrude. Instead playwright Massicotte and director Rachel Lampert want to take us places the characters themselves do not discern and which their dialogue does not reveal. Take the amazing scene in which they meet in a barn during a rainstorm and Charlie offers Mary a ride home, on his horse, clutching his torso. David L. Arsenault’s set provides only a piece of timber, to be reached by climbing a steep ladder. The actors’ skills and our imagination supply all the rest. Their bodies juxtaposed, Charlie and Mary undulate together in a scene of startling if G-rated eroticism. This is the British Empire at the end of the Victorian era, and they do not speak of what they feel.
Charlie’s horsemanship, it turns out, contributes to the war effort. Even though Charlie and Mary live deep in the boonies, news of trouble ahead in Europe looms in their conversation. When they report that war has broken out between Great Britain and Germany, they know that loyal, obedient Canada will honor obligations to the Empire. Bizarre as it seems in hindsight, the Allies felt that fast-moving cavalry were just the thing to throw in combat against advanced technology, namely tanks, machine guns and poison gas. Coincidentally, the same historical folly is the theme of the current Broadway hit, Nick Stafford’s War Horse, about the catastrophic waste of horse flesh and personnel.
The extinction of chivalric, romantic warfare on the battlefields of World War I was certainly one of the signal events of the last century, even for playwrights who never experienced it, like Massicotte, born in 1969. We’re prepared for the intersection of the personal and political when Massicotte has Charlie struggling to recite the only poem he knows, Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” aided by Mary’s better memory. This is, alas, also heavy foreshadowing of what Charlie faces on the battlefield, underscored by Mary’s favorite Tennyson, “The Lady of Shallot,” about the damsel dying of a broken heart.
Charlie’s progress from Canada to the front is marked in letters back to Mary, starting with the joyous embarkation from Montreal. In heading toward the front, Charlie meets up with a sergeant bearing the unlikely name of Gordon Flowerdew. Massicotte would not invent such an unlikely moniker because the real Flowerdew actually existed and is still known to Canadian schoolchildren as one of the few soldiers ever to have won the Victoria Cross, the Empire’s highest military honor. As there are only two actors on stage, the voice of Flowerdew must come from Ms. Adair, still barefoot and clad in her nightie. With a hunch of her shoulders and a certain throaty huskiness, we imagine we’re hearing a macho guy. He is also a comforter and an adviser to the younger man.
What Massicotte is asking of director Lampert and her cast is one of the strangest and most arresting scenes you’ll ever see on stage. The script asks that actress Adair alternate between being the Mary that homesick Charlie yearns for, and the rather rough-mannered fighting man who is present. One misstep and this becomes farcical. When Flowerdew is wounded, his buddy Charlie cradles him in his arms, something the young man cannot do with lovely Mary. For an instant we think the script may be veering into an innocent homoeroticism, when, at Flowerdew’s death, actress Adair is Mary again.
Massicotte’s initial audiences would remember that Flowerdew won the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Moreuil Wood on March 30, 1918, an important but costly Canadian victory, and the last successful cavalry charge in world history. We don’t need the footnote as Charlie survives and finds his lost horse. Then more randomly, and more modernly, his dread is fulfilled by an artillery shell.
World War I helped usher in modernism, but we and Massicotte are postmoderns. Kitchen audiences who fondly remember Arlene Hutton’s Last Train to Nibroc in November 2009, a World War II romance also featuring Gilde, won’t find it in the same genre. “A tug to the heartstrings” does not describe Mary’s Wedding, despite Adair’s ability to flood her cheeks with tears on cue. All the theatrical invention, all the cleverness, tends to bracket emotion. We’re more likely to gasp than to swoon.
This is director Lampert’s first assignment on the Kitchen’s new stage, still intimate but deeper. Her blocking delights in upstagedownstage action impossible in the old space.
Lampert’s casting of company favorite Eric Gilde exploits his power for nuanced subtext in even the simplest lines. As the dreamer and the dreamed, however, Ellen Adair’s breathtaking performance will be remembered at year’s end as one of the gutsiest and most affecting seen anywhere.