ST. CHRISTOPHER by A. Shay Hahn, directed by Vikki Anderson, with Lisa Norton, Gray Powell, Philip Riccio and Ashley Wright. Presented by DVxT and Theatre Passe Muraille at the Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson). Opens tonight (March 31) and runs to April 17, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $24-$34, Sunday pwyc-$16. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNNNN
It's rare when preparations for a theatre production include watching movies.
The cast of A. Shay Hahn's St. Christopher have had film nights (was popcorn included?) at director Vikki Anderson's house.
One double bill included The Asphalt Jungle and the Bogie/Bacall classic The Big Sleep. Why? Performance style. The period of those Hollywood works is just right for Hahn's play, set in 1949 Toronto on the eve of the S.S. Noronic catastrophe.
Never heard of it? You're not the only one.
A late-night fire on board the American pleasure boat for the rich, which was touring the Great Lakes and docked that night in Toronto, killed nearly a quarter of the 500 passengers.
The playwright uses the tragedy as the background for a tale of mystery and intrigue, of schemes and hidden truths, as two young people try to redefine themselves in a world that's growing darker around them.
In other words, we're in a stage version of film noir, where no one is trustworthy and even the best of friends have hidden agendas. St. Christopher is a caper play with a Canadian slant.
"At one level it's a piece about the start of the Cold War, when everyone's still off-centre after the dropping of the atomic bomb," says Lisa Norton, who plays Miriam, an exuberant, idealistic debutante American aboard the Noronic.
"That big, senseless event has all the characters reeling, not sure what else will happen to them. The play is about trying to find reasons to go on, to make sense of and live with chaos."
"And that's especially true for Tom, an ex-soldier for whom the events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki have no comfortable context," continues Gray Powell, who plays the man who gets caught up with Miriam.
Powell explains that Tom, a Winnipegger who was injured in France during the war, has learned that the adventures he sought by leaving home for the big world can be disastrous rather than thrilling. Planning to be a historian - his interest is the piecing together of ancient vases - Tom is trying to find a means to contextualize the war and the world he's now living in.
The younger, more sheltered Miriam still has that lust for adventure and sees Tom as her opportunity to experience new things.
"This is one of those stories where two people connect right away," offers Norton, a Shaw Festival regular, "though she's also intrigued by this guy from Winnipeg - wherever that is - who's a dirty soldier with his own experiences."
Likewise, Tom's attracted to Miriam because she's his opposite, notes Powell, whose Toronto work has been mostly in summer festivals and Rhubarb! shows.
"There's something about blue blood that draws Tom in, as well as Miriam's charm, intelligence and naíveté."
This tale of love and mystery is bookended by surreal scenes involving caricatures of the period's key political figures: Churchill, Hitler, Truman and Stalin. Along with the figures in the main story, they remind us that the world has changed forever.
"I feel there's something sinister in these scenes," notes Norton, "especially in the final episode. They're a reminder of how little control the rest of us have."
Though there's no real dancing in the show, director Anderson brought in a dance instructor to give the cast a sense of period poise and movement style. The teacher told them, the two actors recall with matching smiles, that on the dance floor the man only needs to move for the woman to follow happily .
"And you know what? It was comforting to be led around," laughs Norton, who scored this past summer as the level-headed, self-sufficient Violet in Man And Superman.
"I've even thought, when I'm offstage and about to enter a room, 'Why isn't that man opening the door for me? That's what he's supposed to do. '"