During the first twenty-seven years of my life here in Winnipeg I likely attended three Fringe Festival plays in total. Two years ago I went to three during one season and last year upped that total to five. The increase was largely due to the number of plays that friends of mine were participating in, either as writers, actors, stage managers, etc. This year I decided I would get the frequent fringer pass which allows me to see 10 plays for $69, a substantial savings over 10 individual plays. Plus, since the festival runs over the best part of 2 weeks, there is no need to rush and get to see all 10 plays right away.
That said, I went to two plays Thursday night, both with religious themes to them. The first was Padre X, written and performed by Marc Moir, and the second was The Unlikely Sainthood Of Madeline McKay, written by Joseph Aragon and performed by Kiss the Giraffe Productions.
Padre X is the story of John Weir Foote, a Canadian chaplain in WWII, and the only Canadian chaplain to win the Victoria Cross. The play held interest to me, because my own great-grandfather was a military chaplain, and of course, I am a priest. I did however, approach this play with some trepidation given the way that clergy are often portrayed in dramatic productions. To my pleasant surprise, I found Foote portrayed as a man of deep personal faith, who believed that presenting that faith to the troops whose spiritual care he was responsible for, to be his highest priority. This point is made repeatedly throughout the play, but not in a polemical way, but simply by way of stating who Foote was. The play also makes it clear that for Foote, such talk only had meaning to the extent that he was willing to enter into the life of the troops he was ministering to, which led him to Dieppe and eventually a POW camp.
At the same time, Foote is no one-dimensional Bible jockey. Moir does an impressive job of displaying Foote’s anger, dismay, pain and sorrow at the futility of war and what it cost those who went to fight it, and above this, the love that Foote had for all those in his care. The audience was clearly experiencing many of the same emotions themselves as they watched the play. Another thing that worked well in the presentation was that fact that Moir clearly displays in his writing a deep respect for the sacrifices that those soldiers made while protesting the futility of war.
As for the performance Moir brought to mind in two ways the acting of Jimmy Stewart. Firstly, there was a measure of hesitation in his speech. Secondly, and the more important of the two is that Moir brings to Foote that sense of general decency that was so much a part of many Stewart roles. Pre-show and set change music was of the Glen Miller, big band style, and the play opens and closes with “When The Lights Go On Again,” by Vera Lynn, a most fitting choice. All in all I’d rate it 4.5/5 stars and highly recommend that anyone who is able should see it. It is playing at venue 4 in the Pantages playhouse.
I chose to go to the second play, The Unlikely Sainthood Of Madeline McKay, simply because it was written by Joseph Aragon. Two or three years ago I went to see his musical Lucretia Borgia, which I really liked, although I thought was not long enough to do all the necessary character development. Last year, I went to see Bloodless, his musical re-telling of the Burke and Hare murder case in 19th century Edinburgh. This I thought was a mini-masterpiece that did an excellent job of telling the story in a compelling fashion.
Tonight’s play is from an earlier time, 2003, and revolves around the arrival of a charlatan visionary, who claims visitations from the Virgin Mary at an apocalyptic Marian commune run by a defrocked priest whose bona fides as a charlatan are more than equal to those of the visionary. Needless to say, the charlatan starts to receive real visitations from a rather caustic Holy Mother which upset all the plans that have been made.
For me, the real interesting point came when Madeline, the visionary, accuses a priest working for the archdiocese of not looking out for the best interests of the people. According to her, she offers them a chance to feel good about themselves, something the church should be doing but isn’t. In contrast, the priest from the archdiocese, who has been investigating the commune for a while, (a key element of the plot), seems to be saying that the church’s role is to help people live lives of truth and justice in a compassionate framework. This is the tension that remains throughout the play and you have to decide for yourself how well it is or isn’t resolved by the end.
As with the other Aragon plays that I have seen the parts for the women actors are better written and more interesting than those written for the men. I’ve yet to see a work by him with an all or even largely male cast, to know if that would affect things(this cast is four women and two men.). In particular the part of the defrocked priest needs an actor who can be more convincing as a ruthless con-man. Like the other Aragon plays I have seen there is humour aplenty in this piece. Being an earlier work, the humour is broader and more inclined to cheap laughs at the expense of Roman Catholic peccadilloes. However, his later works have shown that his sense of humour and ability to generate laughter while still sticking to a grim tale have been well-honed in the intervening years.
This play is at the PTE main stage, third floor Portage Place, and I would rate it 3.5/5 stars. Still very much worth seeing.