THE DANISH PLAY by Sonja Mills, directed by Kelly Thornton, with Kate Hennig, Christine Brubaker, Dmitry Chepovetsky, Eric Goulem, Randi Helmers, Erika Hennebury and Bruce Hunter. Presented by Nightwood Theatre in the Tarragon Extra Space (30 Bridgman). Opens tonight (Thursday, November 21) and runs to December 15, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $16-$30, Sunday pwyc. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNNN
if you haven't heard of agnete Ottosen -- or the Danish resistance -- you're not alone. Ottosen was one of Denmark's leading resistance fighters during the second world war. Because of her efforts and those of others, 7,000 Jews, all but 200 of the country's population, were smuggled out of occupied Denmark to safety.
Thanks to Sonja Mills's The Danish Play, audiences will discover Ottosen and learn more about her complicated life.
Mills has a good hook on the story -- she's Ottosen's great-niece. She's based the play on her relative's diaries, peppered throughout with dark poems.
It's not exactly typical of Mills's stage work. She's best-known for the 10-episode series Dyke City, but don't look for quirky lezzies or sexually ambivalent partners here.
This is a story about Ottosen's struggles during the war and afterwards, when she was determined to have a child but not a husband. In both the large-scale political world and the personal sphere, she was a defiant woman battling the system.
But when I suggest to Kate Hennig, who stars as Ottosen, that a search for independence was a key part of the character, she disagrees.
"I don't think of Agnete's efforts as a sign of strength, but rather as a mask for her vulnerability," offers the intelligent, articulate Hennig as we sit in a cramped, hot dressing room. "Her fight was part of a troubled, difficult and private battle.
"Most importantly, she was an outsider, someone who didn't belong in so many ways. She had a perception of what was defined as the masculine domain and struggled to express herself within a world where women were wives, mothers and, to quote the play, "the makers of sandwiches.'
"The last thing she wanted to be was a hero."
Hennig, who's back in Toronto after several years working in Calgary and studying voice in England, admits that Ottosen's poems -- she's pasted a number of them into her copy of the script at appropriate points -- colour her view of the Danish woman.
"Most were written in or about the work camps where she was interned. No surprise that they're incredibly disturbing and fraught with irony, for she was trying to cope with all the crap she was experiencing."
Born in the 60s and raised in suburban England and Canada, Hennig knew she had to research material that was totally foreign to her.
"Even when you start to numb yourself to the wartime events, you sometimes want to vomit. And, shit, we seem to be heading into war again. It's time for those who can't remember to learn."
She recalls rehearsals in Calgary for the dark musical Cabaret, in which she played the fun-loving, wilfully naive Sally Bowles. She later received one of three Mitchell Awards -- the equivalent of a Dora Award, which she's also won -- for her work.
"Our first day onstage was September 11, 2001, and we just had to go on with rehearsal. It was a horrible, powerless place to be. But I can't forget Sally's line about the encroaching Nazi movement: "What does any of this have to do with us?'"
As skilled in musical as in straight theatre, Hennig brings emotional depth and tremendous energy to her stage work. Importantly, she doesn't approach the forms differently.
"A musical is the same as Shakespeare in that it involves heightened realism, which is the style of theatre I like to see and do," she says, lunching on homemade ginger carrot soup.
"The best musical theatre and the larger-than-life language in classical works both create an opportunity to reach further emotionally. I'm not interested in theatre that simply replicates reality."
Hennig's theatre-related talents grew during the year she spent in London at the Central School of Speech and Drama. She graduated earlier this month -- in absentia -- with a master's, awarded with distinction.
"I'm really proud of the degree," she says, touching her chest like a pledge of self-worth. "I had no undergrad degree; I started right into musical theatre. This degree empowered me, allowed me to develop courage and a sense that I have something to offer others, through teaching as well as performing. It was more than an education in voice.
"I can now comfortably call myself a theatre artist." email@example.com