Get a writer already. Jesus. The Invisible: Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare is gobsmackingly well designed by Brette Gerecke and you could hardly ask for a more talented or committed cast. But Jonathan Christensen’s script for this musical is a disaster.
Virtually nothing happens in Act 1; it’s an hour-long set-up that could probably have been handled in 10 minutes. We’re in England in 1941. Hitler is winning World War II and Evelyn Ash, who works in England’s wartime spy agency, is trying to convince her spymasters to send female secret agents to France. She will succeed, of course — otherwise there wouldn’t be an Act 2 — which is why we don’t need to sit through separate backstory interviews with the six candidates or watch them training for weeks in Scotland. We know how all of this is going to turn out, so none of it qualifies as story.
When the narrative finally arrives in Act 2, it finds new ways to be clunky. The crisis has been so deliberately planted in Act 1 that all we can do is age while we wait for it show up. And the big reveal, the most important plot point, is not credible.
And let’s talk about the World War II fantasy thing. Female secret agents did serve during the Second World War, but notes on the production admit, “To our knowledge there was no ‘all-female’ cell”, which is what forms here. The Invisible isn’t about specific historic events or individuals, it’s a work of fiction. Fair enough, but it’s a dumb work of fiction, superficial and self-serving. It stylizes and glamourizes the real suffering of World War II. That’s particularly hard to take, given the horrors of Russia’s current war of aggression against Ukraine. Christensen pastes a feminist statement on top of this frippery, which makes it even more offensive. Heading into enemy territory, the women sing, “Most of all, we’ll fight for all the girls who never got a chance.” Really? That’s at the top of their agenda? Obviously, if your subjects are women and war — including women as warriors — there’s a huge amount of experience to explore, but doing so impactfully would involve thinking about it rather than giving us cartoon Nazis and a barely-there plot.
One more paragraph and I’ll get to the good stuff. At first, I found the score, which Christensen wrote with Matthew Skopyk, engaging. It’s energetic. But it’s also repetitive: anthem after anthem after anthem. And virtually every one of the songs marks times, narratively speaking. They exist because — oh, I don’t know, another song might be nice. They never advance the plot and they rarely explore the characters’ internal lives in affecting ways. Before the spies head to France, they party in a cabaret … so that one of them can sing a completely random cabaret song. And talk about treading water: before they undertake the Big Action of Act 2, this cell of spies stops to sing, “Is this what we worked for, trained for?” YES! Yes it is! And we had to sit through all of that working and training, so get on with it!
Okay, good stuff. Some of the music is touching, including a song that features the lyric “There’ll be no roses in England without lilies in France.”
And the performers are first-rate. Everybody up there can sing the roof off. Tahirih Vejdani, who plays Anna, a radio operator, has a particularly gorgeous voice — sweet tone and huge range. Playing Charlie, the Polish risktaker, Justine Westby commands the stage and so does Melissa MacPherson as the narrator, Evelyn Ash. We were lucky to have MacPherson’s magnetic presence to guide is through the evening.
And, as I said, Gerecke’s set, lighting, and projection designs are knockouts. She floods the stage with imagery and surprises. Chairs suddenly light up. A grid of circles on the floor changes from one saturated colour to another — scarlet, cobalt … And, when a character goes missing, she appears behind a perforated screen, looking pixilated, ghost-like. It’s all masterful.
And, without a worthwhile story to serve, it almost feels like a waste. It isn’t, of course; the production values of this piece are so compelling it took me a while to realize how boring Invisible really is.
THE INVISIBLE: AGENTS OF UNGENTLEMANLY WARFARE Written and directed by Jonathan Christensen. Musical composition by Jonathan Christensen and Matthew Skopyk. A Catalyst Theatre production at the York Theatre on Friday, April 29. Continues until May 7. Tickets
+ Value-added content: Invisible makes three substantial references to a Romanian folktale. After the show, lots of folks were wondering what the hell it was about. Here’s my take: The lesson of the folktale is “Be bold, but not too bold.” When her newly trained spies get into trouble in France, Ash worries that she has been too bold: maybe her trainees weren’t ready, maybe women should really not be in the field. The folktale is about a male serial killer; Invisible is about a world run by men — until women challenge the status quo.
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