THE RAT KING by Maggie MacDonald, music by Bob Wiseman, directed by MacDonald and Stephanie Markowitz, with Magali Meagher, Jeremy Singer, Glen Sheppard, Reg Vermue, Mike Follert, Shayna Stevenson and Kathleen Phillips. At the Alchemy Theatre (133 Tecumseh). Opens tonight (Thursday, January 19) and runs to Sunday (January 22), Thursday-Saturday 8 pm, Saturday late show midnight, matinee Sunday 3 pm. $15-$17, matinee pwyc. www.ratking.ca. Rating: NNNNN
Local art dynamo Maggie Macdonald can make a revolution out of a single sentence, but she thrives on that instant of connection, of sharing an eye-opening joke with her audience.
Take the scene at the Alchemy Theatre off Queen West where she's rehearsing her insanely ambitious rock opera The Rat King.
There's an edge of panic in the room. We're surrounded by chicken-wire robots and cardboard rat heads, watching a handful of bleary-eyed arty kids scurry across a stage like rodents.
MacDonald's new stage work, a surreal Brechtian nursery-rhyme parable about everything from incest to environmental collapse, opens in less than two weeks. The cast of largely untrained actors - a dazzling cross-section of the city's music, art and zine scenes - are exhausted and shaky. Musical director Bob Wiseman has a nasty case of stomach flu.
Balancing a container of Thai takeout on her lap, MacDonald scribbles notes in a sketchbook, leaning over to whisper to co-director Stephanie Markowitz when an actor falters or a joke falls flat.
All of a sudden, a massive, hooting guffaw rings out. Jeremy Singer (the HANK Collective) has delivered a line about Aristotle's "discovery" of menstruation. It's a sombre part of the script, weighed down with themes of post-apocalyptic infertility, but MacDonald is in hysterics.
"Women's studies joke!" she nudges me. The tension breaks.
Cutting heady politics with covert nerd-friendly punchlines, it's a typical Maggie moment, whether she's smashing the state with the art punk anthems of her band Republic of Safety, critiquing corporate monopolies in her illustrated novel, Kill The Robot, or mounting this particular theatre piece.
The Rat King itself has a fairly simple story on first glance: it's the tale of the fucked-up Cannon family, headed by a military-minded patriarch, struggling to survive in a dystopian future marked by climate change, a dying population and an influx of rodents.
Haunted by ghosts of dead relatives, and compelled to ensure the survival of his species, father Ed searches for a suitor for his daughter Carlyn, and recruits a seemingly mute servant - the titular Rat King - to help build a nefarious invention to destroy the rat race.
Scratch the surface, and you'll discover a world of references: Ed, who's based on Edward Teller, the inventor of the hydrogen bomb, sneers at atomic bomb team leader Robert Oppenheimer in song. The opening chorus comes from T. S. Eliot's The Hollow Men. Carlyn's sister Carson is named after Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring.
"Oppenheimer stopped and felt terrible guilt even before the project was finished. By then it was too late to stop what he was doing, but he had this sense that things were too terrible. But Teller, his colleague, went on to promote the development of the hydrogen bomb. To me, he was so hawkish.
"It seemed to represent a very modern idea, that we can dominate nature for the security of humanity - which just seems so fucked, cuz how is humanity separate from nature? Things like DDT represent that: you kill mosquitoes to stop malaria, but if you kill the mosquitoes you kill the fish. You kill the fish, you kill the birds, then we get cancer."
Every sentence that comes out of MacDonald's mouth - whether in her work or in conversation - has a hundred different layers.
She started working on The Rat King five years ago, as her grandmother was dying of cancer. Driven to document what was going on, MacDonald started sketching portraits of family members and thinking about the effects of environmental degradation on the body.
She made mental connections: in her hometown of Cornwall, a city with a relatively small population and a history of chemical contamination, not one but two boys from the high school where her teacher/labour activist mother taught died of rare brain cancers. Two uncles from a nearby town also died of similar cancers.
That fall, MacDonald studied the analytic tradition at U of T and, frustrated with the true-false binaries of philosophers of logic like Bertrand Russell, rebelled by embracing the chaotic nature of language. Walking across Queen's Park en route to class, she'd scrawl "excessively beautiful words" and illustrate her thoughts in the sketchbooks she kept on hand. She gorged herself on T. S. Eliot. She fell in love with a boy in a philosophy class, the prototype for the mutant faux mute who would eventually become the Rat King.
All those references fell into place to become first a graphic novel in verse; then, at the behest of critic and impresario Carl Wilson, who invited MacDonald to perform excerpts at his multidisciplinary Tin Tin Tin night in February of 2004, a piece of musical theatre.
"If we look at Cats as Andrew Lloyd Webber doing T. S. Eliot's Practical Cats, then The Rat King is like Laurie Anderson doing The Hollow Men," she whoops in a torrent of laughter.
Anderson, she says, is one of her greatest influences.
But don't think MacDonald is just a highbrow artistic elitist. As a kid, she claims, she couldn't communicate with her peers. In sixth grade she got hooked on the high of writing for an audience after penning "pop-song love poems" for a classmate's boyfriend.
"I had just seen Roxanne, with Steve Martin, and I remember thinking, 'Oh, I'm like him. I'm an ugly nerd. Nobody likes me. '"
At 12, MacDonald "fell in love" with Edward Furlong after seeing Terminator 2. The obvious way to meet him, she decided, was to write a successful screenplay in which he would be the star. Obviously.
"I got all these books, trained myself about screenwriting and made a rule that I'd write four pages a day for all of February 1991. By the end of the month I had my 120-page full-length feature film script. I knew realistically, not being as thin as most Hollywood child stars, I wouldn't get the female lead. But at least if Eddie were cast as the male lead I could meet him and get to know him. And maybe through my writing he would feel like he had something to share with me, and then we could date!"
She contacted scads of American agents, most of whom flat-out rejected the script. By that point, though, MacDonald had met a girl with a shaved head who was into the Clash. With the discovery of punk rock and a peer group, the project lost its urgency.
Punk may have introduced her to the power of community, but writing has remained a chief mode of connecting with people. That's probably why, even though MacDonald has played active roles in electoral politics - in 1999 she ran for election as an NDP MP candidate in Cornwall, and has worked her ass off campaigning for the party in a number of elections - she's most pulled to creating political change through art.
Her greatest asset is her ability to draw incredibly clear links between diverse concepts. As we sit in her bedroom discussing the unseasonably warm weather, she jumps from relating tropical storms to the worries about global warming in The Rat King to quickly and cogently explaining why, from an environmental and progressive standpoint, the NDP is a far better political choice than the Green party in this week's federal election.
"I want to firmly and openly endorse the NDP," she matter-of-factly declares. "The Green party just doesn't have a progressively consistent platform. They may say, 'Let's recycle, let's be more environmentally rigid,' but the environment isn't just a single issue; the environment is bound up in class, in issues of health care. Recycling will not stop all the environmentally influenced cancers - that's gonna happen with free medicare.
"It's a crisis time, not a time for subtle change. And it's the duty of the artist - the writer, the visual artist, the performer - to try to convince people that there is a crisis and to make people ask our political leaders for massive change.
"The politician communicates to the mind and tries to make people stay calm, but it's not a time to stay calm. We're not safe any more."