Canadian humor has moved a long way since the MacKenzie Brothers were in the Great White North. Canucks look more kindly on cannabis than we do, have universal health care, higher education with cheap tuition, and they OK’ed gay marriage six years before New York state did.
So banish that image of the yokel in a plaid shirt and a maple leaf. They now think they’re hipper than we are That’s why the hit of the Toronto Fringe Festival, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, is opening as the second production in the off-Broadway strata of the Finger Lakes Musical Theater Festival, at the Auburn Public Theater. It brings us up to date with things up there.
The word “My” in the title is a signal that this is an autobiographical show, based on, as they say in the movies, “a true story.” It was David Hein’s mother who got married. Actor, singer and playwright Hein is the first person you see on stage, strumming his guitar. As his dramatic character matures (the young David part is played early on by Scott Charles Jr.), Hein takes over the role himself. Co-author Irene Carl Sankoff is Hein’s wife. In the first half of the 95-minute action, she’s a member of the ensemble, taking many small roles, until she too takes over her own character in the story. This prevents any crabby, narrow-minded critic from saying the younger lovebirds were not really the right people for the roles.
The mashing-together of the three disparate-sounding words, lesbian, Jewish and Wiccan, might make the enterprise sound satirical or absurdist, like a spinoff of Tony & Tina’s Wedding, but it isn’t. Playwright Hein is that rare child from the current generation who really likes his parent (mother, not father; we’ll get back to that) and supports her choices in life. Indeed, some of the songs in the show were written to serenade her and her partner. We are reminded constantly that the mother could have chosen her path only in Canada, specifically Ottawa, where gay rights advocates can demonstrate on Parliament Hill. Hein also adds to the mix some political drum-beating for her causes.
The production values of the Finger Lakes Festival and director David Lowenstein give Lesbian Wedding an agreeable upscale look that may be at odds with its scruffier, Fringe Fest origins. Alex Koziara’s witty scenic and lighting designs give us maps of Ottawa and shots of the distinctive canals at night. While Hein, with guitar at stage left, is reciting his and his mother’s life stories, action is jumping back and forth in geography and time, requiring the ensemble to zip through instant wardrobe changes (provided by wig designer Bryce Turgeon and costume designer Garth Dunbar), sometimes appearing as the opposite gender.
Actors in major speaking roles (not the mature David or his mother) join in that fun. If the show were staged in a Fringe venue, say a warehouse basement, all these could have been done badly for laughs. Instead, the glossy look of the show, as well as Lowenstein’s champagne-bubbly pacing, speaks well for what quality control we can expect from future Finger Lakes Festival productions. Lowenstein’s tone also softens the author’s tendency toward stridency on political questions.
David’s lovely blonde mother, Claire (Julie Dingman Evans), had been unhappily married to stuffy Garth (Christopher Ryan) in Nebraska, when she split. Taking a position teaching psychology at “the university” in Ottawa during midwinter, she moves into a small apartment building where another tenant is the bumptious free spirit Michelle (Amber Carson), who describes herself as a “dyke.” Following Michelle’s invitation, Claire joins in the festivities of the winter carnival, with bright lights on the canals at night. There she meets attractive brunette Jane (Erica Schroeder), given to New Agey talk. Giddy at her liberation from Red State oppression and enraptured by the freedom and exuberance of the progressive Canadian capital, Claire impulsively kisses Jane. And we’re off.
Pesky computer searches reveal that in original productions Claire hailed from Saskatoon on the Canadian prairies and not Nebraska. In Toronto, then, the more-liberated-than-you-Yanks theme did not surface. But play along. Everything else feels entirely plausible. Claire and Jane are congenial and supportive of one another, and they sing a number of duets, sometimes joined by David. Their feelings for one another grow, as happened with Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres and Cynthia Nixon, and they decide to get hitched. This parallels gay rights agitation, but otherwise generates only modest conflict.
The religious differences between the two are to be celebrated, as would not be the case if one of them was, say, Muslim. Jane tells us all we need to know about witches early on in “Wiccan 101.” Claire’s Jewishness, apart from suffering anti-Semitic slurs in her hometown, had nearly vanished in assimilation. But as marriage grows closer, she becomes more assertive about her heritage, undertaking to study Hebrew. Director-choreographer Lowenstein wittily handles this segue by having the ensemble make a quick entrance in Fiddler on the Roof costumes, mimicking choreographer Bob Fosse’s steps from the opening number, “Tradition.”
Some of the best fun in Wedding comes in scenes not directly related to the plot, such as the blandly titled “Garth’s Lament,” in which the ex-husband imagines Claire and Jane (fully clothed) as creatures of a red-hot porn video. A much racier number comes with another bland title, “Romance 101,” with lines like, “You don’t need a penis if what you want is love.” If homophobes Michele and Marcus Bachmann were waiting for a cue to storm out of the theater, they could take this one.
But they might miss the single most hilarious number of the show, “Double Date,” which has nothing to do with politics, feminism, Judaism or witchcraft. Through an innocent error in reading an advertisement with two owls, David has Claire and Jane meet his intended, Irene (Irene Carl Sankoff), at a Hooters restaurant, also patronized by mouth-breathing rednecks. As David arrives late, Irene suffers in making light conversation with the women, while they are attended by ultra-willowy Becki (Mary Claire King), attired in the distinctive form-clinging uniforms. (The Finger Lakes Festival must have had to pay for rights.) King can never be ignored in a dozen ensemble roles, but the snug Hooters pants give her license to steal the scene.
After winning the prize at the Toronto Fringe Festival, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding played several Canadian and U.S. cities, including New York City and Rochester, before arriving in Auburn. This production sets standards, putting a top team in all roles, the others would struggle to meet. Julie Dingman Evans, who was heard last month as Kate/Lilli in Merry-Go-Round Playhouse’s Kiss Me Kate, brings a splendid singing voice while always keeping Claire dramatically compelling. Erica Schroeder, a favorite of director Lowenstein from his off-Broadway hit Shout!, deftly defines a contrasting but compelling type in Jane.
The Finger Lakes Musical Theater Festival will mean golden oldies like the upcoming My Fair Lady at MGR, and others guaranteed to cause comment, like this one. t
This production runs through July 28. See Times Table for information.