Sometimes old friends turn up at Christmas and you’re not sure at first what to do with them. Although I remembered it fondly, it’s been years since I’ve seen Lucia Frangione’s Cariboo Magi and it took me a while to renegotiate the terms of our relationship.
The play, which won the 2002 Sydney Risk Prize for the Outstanding Script by an Emerging Playwright, unfolds just before Christmas in 1870. A Frenchwoman named Fanny DuBeau is about to lose her saloon in California. An itinerant group of actors has just fled without paying their bills and, when their lucrative contract to perform in Barkerville arrives in the mail, Fanny decides to rustle her own ragtag troupe together and pretend to be the entertainers. They head off on a snowy journey north.
As directed by Joelle Wyminga, the opening scenes in this production are probably more madcap than they need to be. Rose McNeil plays Fanny with a broad French accent and a lot of energy, but not a lot of focus. And some of the material had my head spinning. The other characters are: the Reverend William Teller, who’s a failed Anglican minister; a young German woman named Marta, who was essentially adopted by Fanny; and Marta’s love interest, Joe Mackey. Joe is of undetermined race, but the point is he’s not white. “I don’t care if he’s a half-breed whatever,” Fanny says at one point — but she does care. She spits an endless series of racial approximations at him, calling him “Hawaiian Italian” and, I think, “Eskimo Mongolian.” This was probably funnier — for white people — in 2002, but it’s cringeworthy in 2019. Complicating the equation — in an interesting way: Joe is being played by Mi’kmaq actor Zach Running Coyote.
Running Coyote’s take on the script’s politics is far more important than mine, of course: the play isn’t toying with my identity. And the script very deliberately sends up Indigenous stereotyping: Joe only gains Fanny’s respect when he pretends to be the last of the Mohicans. Still, for this white liberal, it was a rough ride for a bit. Let me just flag that observation and invite commentary from people of colour.
And let me say that, when Marta hit the stage, played by Shelby Wyminga, I felt like the strengths of the evening started to hit their groove. When she was still a small child, Marta’s parents sold her to be a hurdy gurdy girl, but she has a will of iron and is fond of proclaiming “Ich bin eine starke deutsche Frau!” (“I am a hearty German woman.”) Wyminga knows exactly how to play into Marta’s furious concentration — and cultural stereotyping — without for one second losing sight of the character’s passionate, beating heart.
In a performance that’s similarly writ large and spoken true, Stephen Elcheshen is also strong as the Reverend, who moves from weeping in the purgatory of his faltering faith to being madly in love with both women.
The evening starts to swing into its farcical stride when its storylines — and literary allusions — begin to overlap. Trekking to Barkerville, the company of four rehearses Hamlet, The Last of the Mohicans, and A Christmas Carol — and they express their feelings in the terms of those texts.
Marta, for instance, is seven months pregnant by Joe, who returned to Canada not knowing that she was about to become a mother. She figures the Danish prince also got Ophelia pregnant and then took off and she spits out her fury at Joe through a series of literary references.
When the quartet arrives in Barkerville, they find out that they’re expected to perform the story of the Nativity — and that’s when the genius of the script really kicks in. Marta, who’s playing the Virgin Mary, goes into labour and nobody knows what they’re doing so, in performance, they grab random bits of every text they’ve studied. When the angel of the Lord appears, it’s Jacob Marley.
I’ll leave you to discover the rest. Under Wyminga’s direction, the cast of four frolics their way through it — and reveals the script’s tender, subversive heart.
Throughout the play, Frangione has been unraveling Christianity as an institution. Early on, the Reverend says, “If the Lord lived by the church’s honour, I think I would hang myself.” And, as we get to know Joe, Marta, and Fanny, we’re exposed to their experiences of racism and violence against women — hardly unrelated topics.
Frangione’s whittling the whole thing down to get at an essential teaching about —and celebration of — the Christian message of love. I’m a long-lapsed Christian and I still find the Nativity story one of the most moving I know.
I felt knocked about getting into this show. Overall, though, it’s well done and I’m grateful for it.
CARIBOO MAGI By Lucia Frangione. Directed by Joelle Wyminga. Presented by Far From the Tree Productions. At the Havana Theatre on Thursday, December 5. Continues until December 14. Tickets.
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