The St. Ann’s Bay Players have been producing dozens of plays over the last 35 years and this summer they are offering two one-act plays, Jesus Christ Murdena and Still Game, adapted from markedly different sources.
Jesus Christ Murdena is based on a work by Cape Breton writer Lynn Coady from her first short story collection, Play The Monster Blind, and Still Game is a joining of three episodes of a BBC Scottish television comedy series created by Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill. Players artistic director, Bev Brett, adapted both works as well as directed them.
I attended the opening night performance of this double-bill at the Gaelic College in St. Ann’s back in late June when it was offered as part of Kitchenfest. This review is appearing now in time for the second run of the two plays beginning Thursday, August 6.
Both shows featured the trademark zesty performances from the Players repertory company of actors but based on that debut performance, I would have to say the Coady adaptation, aside from the delightful performances, was the more successful of the two adaptations. And June was a long time ago so things might have changed a lot since then.
Brett, as adapter and director, found a way of adopting Coady’s story seemingly word for word from the printed page. Murdeena, a young woman adrift in her small town, literally steps out of the confines of her small town’s expectations. She goes for a walk (Who goes for a walk around here? her flabbergasted mother asks). This minor defiance of community norms escalates until Murdeena quietly makes a disturbing revelation about her true calling in the world.
Jitka Zgola, as Murdeena, gave a confident and charming performance matched by Peggy Jenkins as Margaret Ann, Murdeena’s increasingly scandalized mother. Various townsfolk, male and female, and narrators were played with skill and great comedic flair by Sue Browne, Nancy Smith, and Yvonne LeBlanc.
Still Game is a darkly funny take on the travails of being elderly with two outstanding performances from Murdock MacDonald, as Jack, and George Dauphney, as Victor. Jack and Victor live in a senior’s complex where it is not uncommon for them to discover the corpse of a neighbour and acquaintance frozen stiff in his apartment because he could not afford to pay his electricity bills (or “leckie” as the Scottish characters refer to the utility). And after each new death there is a campaign, subtle and otherwise, by the complex’s residents to acquire possession of the more desirable vacancy. Then someone figures out a way to game the “leckie”, temporarily at least. The third episode has Jack and Victor squabbling over whether to visit the grandkids in Canada (of all places) while their neighbour Isa (Nancy Smith) enlists a reluctant Winston (Yvonne LeBlanc) in a transparent ruse to her shifty leech of an ex, Harry (Sue Browne).
Jesus Christ Murdena had a fluid pace and energy that Still Game with its short scenes (some only a handful of lines long), a staple of television writing and necessitating many blackouts for scene changes, did not quite have. Fewer blackouts (or ideally, none at all) would have given “Still Game” the same snap and crackle in momentum that Jesus Christ Murdena had to spare.
That said, director Brett built both plays on the performing strengths of her cast. MacDonald and Dauphey are a great comedic pairing: they share a wryness and a fondness for argumentation (like a Scottish David Mamet play) that would have audiences following their adventures wherever they went (even-gasp-to Canada).
Yvonne LeBlanc and Nancy Smith were equally as funny as the mismatched “lovers”, Winston and Isa, and Sue Browne, almost unrecognizable in shabby brown trenchcoat and faux stubble, was an oily delight as the highly dubious Harry. Jitka Zgola had many funny moments as the Polish Sarah, as did Peggy Jenkins as Boabby the Bartender who concocts numerous schemes to suck the spare change from the pockets of her geriatric clientele.
As director and adapter, Brett brought a welcome economy and energy to both plays deftly using the smallish stage of the Great Hall of the Clans to create everything from a grocery store to a passenger jet. She coaxed laughs from taboo subjects (religion, death, aging, etc.) that would definitely resonate with any Cape Breton audience (we do have a dark sense of humour, right?).
Jesus Christ Murdena and Still Game return to the Great Hall of The Clans at The Gaelic College in St. Ann’s on Thursday and Friday evenings, 7:30 pm, for three weeks, August 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, and 21. Tickets are $20 each and can be reserved by calling 902-295-3441.