ANNIE MAE'S MOVEMENT written and directed by Yvette Nolan, with Rose Stella and Jason Yuzicapi. Presented by Native Earth Performing Arts and Studio Lab Theatre Foundation at the Native Canadian Centre (16 Spadina Road). Opens tonight (Thursday, March 22) and runs to April 15, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $10, Sunday pwyc. 416-531-4525.
TIME AFTER TIME: THE CHET BAKER PROJECT by James O'Reilly, directed by Jim Millan, with Danny DePoe, Philippa Domville, Martin Julien and O'Reilly. Presented by Crow's Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille in the Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson). Previews tonight (Thursday, March 22), opens Friday (March 23) and runs to April 15, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $19-$28, Sunday pwyc. 416-504-7529.
tell playwrights to get a life -- creatively speaking -- and they'll usually turn to their imagination rather than a history book for inspiration.But biographies of the famous and not so famous also motivate dramatists. The trick is to theatricalize the material and avoid presenting it in a linear fashion, a straight chronology suited more to the page than the stage.
Sometimes a piece goes too far in the other direction, becoming cartoonish and getting nowhere near the subject's soul. Musical bios can be the worst offenders -- like Buddy, based on 50s rock musician Buddy Holly. Its first act is a thin strip of history, its second a recreation of a Holly concert. Entertaining, yes. Enlightening, no.
Canadian playwrights have a knack for getting to the core of historic figures (see sidebar).
They go beyond making statements about what happened, instead blending facts with what simmers emotionally beneath the surface.
Two current plays, Yvette Nolan's Annie Mae's Movement and James O'Reilly's Time After Time: The Chet Baker Project, tinker with biography in a fascinating fashion, using artistic fire to heat up the facts and examine issues beyond one individual's life.
O'Reilly's play looks at American jazz trumpeter Baker, a seductively cool musician with matinee idol looks whose meteoric rise to fame in the 50s was as dramatic as his mysterious nose-dive from a hotel balcony in 1988.
Nolan writes about Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, a Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq who moved to the States and became a leader in the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 70s, notably during the Wounded Knee protest. It's still unclear who was responsible for her 1975 murder -- FBI agents or AIM members who believed she was an FBI informant.
"Funny, I was never drawn to real-life figures before Annie Mae," says the Nova Scotia-based Nolan, a writer, director and performer and president of the Playwrights Union of Canada,
"There are so many challenges in dealing with historic people, and I'm not interested in writing forensic theatre. It's easier to invent from my head and be responsible for the results.
"But with Annie Mae, I'm drawn not to the facts -- the accounts we have are facts full of holes -- but rather to the truths," continues Nolan, whose background is Algonquin and Irish.
O'Reilly, too, looks for artistic answers outside the historical facts.
"Part of my job is to complicate the beauty of a tale that's fairly dark," declares the playwright, a jazz fan whose previous scripts Work and Act Of God have an autobiographical element.
"I've tried to create a lyrical rather than a narrative piece about a much-recorded jazzman whose ravishing love songs were so different from the details of his ugly life."
Nolan's work gets its power not just from the tension between native and white cultures -- and the fact that Aquash was a Canadian in the U.S. -- but also from the stress she felt in the male-dominated AIM.
"She was a woman who left her kids to work on bigger issues but never forgot her children," notes the writer, who also directs her show. "I might have begun with an aboriginal story, but its feminist and gender issues are central to me.
"Ultimately, this is a play about power. Annie Mae confronts a series of male figures, native and white, all played by the same actor."
Sometimes an artist's style as well as his bio can shape a presentation. Think of Mark Cassidy's Howl, whose subject matter, text, look and form draw on the sensibilities of beat writers William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
O'Reilly's riff on Baker aims for mood rather than polished story, with the music of an onstage band commenting on the text.
"I want this piece to play like jazz, with harmonic convergence, melody and lots of counterpoint," he says. "I want it to happen to people, like a song does, open and complete at the same time."
O'Reilly improvises as he speaks, in a manner more like hot jazz than cool. Ideas spill out in a torrent as he leaps back and forth between one point and another.
He uses a frame story -- about a romantically troubled writer who's both fascinated and repelled by the drug-worn, womanizing trumpeter (played by musician Danny DePoe) -- to give the bio another dimension.
"There's no Aristotelian structure here, complete with catharsis," he says. "Instead, I've taken a few themes from his life, repeated them, and each time given them a different emphasis, tonal pressure and context. The result is a two-act song, where the emotional resonance relies on repetition."
Weaving in Baker standards like I Fall In Love Too Easily, Time After Time and My Funny Valentine, O'Reilly realized, "While bad love songs are only funny, good love songs are about heartbreak, sadness and mortality. Their lyrics are so spare and wide open that they're like a Rorschach test."
Canadian playwrights love their historical figures. Here's a roundup of works inspired by real people.
THE EMOTIONALISTS by Sky Gilbert (2000) In his latest of many dramatized artistic lives, Gilbert confronts his own youthful fascination with the forceful writer Ayn Rand. Too bad he tacks on an annoying subplot about a tortured young queer's coming out.ALIEN CREATURE by Linda Griffiths (1999) Writer/performer Griffiths conjures real magic in this "visitation from Gwendolyn MacEwen," which uses only 34 lines of the poet's verse but still conveys her troubled, chaotic, creative world.PILEDRIVER! by Darrin Hagen and Wes Borg (1999) Inspired by the life of gay Alberta 70s pro wrestler Killer Karl Kramer, Hagen and Borg play up the homoerotic elements of wrestling in a show opening Sunday (March 25) at Buddies that's part WWF, part Rocky Horror.IT'S ALL TRUE by Jason Sherman (1999) Sherman literally brings the action out into the audience in this backstage tale about the difficult opening night of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, whose key players include enfant terrible director Orson Welles, his cheated-on wife and gay playwright Blitzstein.GLENN by David Young (1992) Young tackles eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould by splintering him into a quartet of personality fragments, each of which contributes a shard of the kaleidoscope that makes up the enigmatic figure.BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR by John Gray, with Eric Peterson (1978) The tale of first-world-war Canadian flying ace Bishop becomes a musical salon evening filled with some 20 characters and a narrative that satirizes the colonial mentality and the insanity of war. JK