‘Wow-ee’ fairy tales for grown-ups

Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre creates epic spectacle from paper and ‘shower curtains’

'Wow-ee' fairy tales for grown upsAt the first Toronto preview of Frankenstein earlier this month, Catalyst Theatre company tried something different, though tame by its usual audacious standards. The Edmonton-based ensemble staged a midnight show of its acclaimed 2½-hour musical adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. A crowd that ranged from tweens to octogenarians flocked to the Canadian Stage presentation, eager to experience Catalyst’s stylish version of the classic tale, one that features such “Wow-ee”-inducing spectacle as a 14-foot magistrate, a phantasmagorical papier-mâché forest, and a poignant pas de deux between the grotesque, love-starved Monster and his ill-fated Bride.

The witching-hour timing fit perfectly with Catalyst’s recent Gothic trifecta: Frankenstein in 2007; then, in 2009, Nevermore: The Imaginary Life And Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, which travels to London, England, in July and New York in October; and a current adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame due to open in Edmonton next March. Nevermore, particularly, has won the company a legion of teenaged goth fans: “It’s weird when the audiences’ clothing is stranger than the costumes on stage,” says production designer Bretta Gerecke with a laugh.

Yet the fashionable “Gothic” label makes the duo behind Catalyst—45-year-old artistic director Jonathan Christenson and 39-year-old Gerecke—a tad nervous. “We don’t want to be known as a ‘genre company,’ ” says Christenson, sitting with his long-time creative collaborator in the lobby of Toronto’s Bluma Appel Theatre. But more significantly, the playwright, director and composer bristles that the macabre horror associated with that genre isn’t consistent with watching a Catalyst production, an experience Gerecke likens to “Dr. Seuss on acid.” Even that vivid descriptor fails to capture a theatrical mash-up that references commedia dell’arte, Barnum & Bailey, Bertolt Brecht, and Tim Burton—for starters. Dark, unpleasant subject matter can be alchemized theatrically into a light, joyful experience, Christenson says: “I want people to feel inspired but I also want them to go on an emotional journey.”

Christenson and Gerecke, who met in 1993 in the graduate theatre arts program at Edmonton’s University of Alberta, are ambitious, trolling myth and allegory to tell “adult fairy tales.” Shelley’s Frankenstein, Christenson believes, is our outstanding contemporary myth. He relishes taking Hunchback, a story Disneyfied into Beauty and the Beast cliché, and inviting people to see it in a new way—as a story of love being powerful, transformative and humanizing, though not always for the good, a theme explored in Frankenstein. “I believe everyone has a grand opera playing internally,” he says. “Or maybe it’s just me.”

Within the company there’s much talk about reproducing the “logic of dreams,” that weird netherworld which makes sense to the dreamer, says Christenson. He’s comfortable being known for “small-scale spectacle”—an ability to create epic-seeming, ingenious stage sets from simple materials on a shoestring budget. Most of Frankenstein’s set and costumes, for example, are made of paper. “They’re falling apart at the same time Victor [Frankenstein] is falling apart,” says Gerecke. A glacial Arctic scene in the second half is evoked with plastic sheeting affectionately known as “the shower curtains.”

Such is the magic of theatre. “Backstage it just looks like a bunch of junk,” says Gerecke.What also transforms it is the creative investment of the actors, she says, all of whom have been with the production from the beginning and helped shaped its creation. “They make it look like a fancy skirt but there is no fancy skirt,” she says. The austere sets force the audience to be imaginative, she notes: “We use a lot of blank space; they have to fill it in.”

Catalyst’s backstage process rivals its on-stage antics in sheer theatricality: it’s a fluid, ever-evolving process that can see the baby tossed with the bathwater. “We’re pretty fearless when it comes to letting things go,” says Gerecke. One character in Frankenstein saw his lines completely cut. “We think of everything as putting offers on the table and seeing if they fly, if they inspire,” says Christenson.

The goal is creating an interdependent eco-system that exists only as a whole. They’ll never issue soundtracks or scripts, Christenson says, even though people want them. There’s another “never” as well: “They’ll be no Dracula adaptation,” he says with a decidedly un-Gothic laugh. “That I promise.”

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