Death of an elephant. Farce at a funeral. Racism and misogyny in the media. Plays with these themes, which are on three stages in Southern Ontario, all share one goal: to make you ponder, cringe and laugh. Buckle up and get ready for some thought-provoking farcical comedy this summer with Jumbo at the Blyth Festival, It’s Your Funeral at Port Stanley Festival and The Front Page at the Stratford Festival as our mid- to late-summer openers.
Sean Dixon says he wanted to write a play about how a group of people would deal with a death crisis. He stumbled across the story of Jumbo the elephant, who died in St. Thomas while part of the touring Barnum circus in the late 1800s. “I was intrigued with the idea that the show must go on in this little town in Ontario while coping with a crisis, and how it would impact the townspeople and how they respond to it,” says Dixon. With support from Gil Garrett, artistic director at Blyth, some seed money from The Grand Theatre in London through the Ontario Arts Council, and research support from Steve Peters, former mayor of St. Thomas and MPP for the region (and a huge Jumbo historian) Dixon took several years to write Jumbo. Garret is directing the world premiere at Blyth. It includes impressive puppetry, incredible costumes for circus characters, and more.
While circuses and the use of live animals as entertainment have diminished greatly since Barnum days, Dixon feels the story has an important message today. “It became more of a portrait of Jumbo rather than about a group of people in crisis. It is about how Jumbo affected these people in life and death — he moved to the centre of it,” says Dixon.
“It’s a touching story where people try to be good to one another. It’s not a circus, it’s a play. We’re trying to bring a bit of spectacle to telling a story. There’s an adventure aspect to it. It’s funny and there are good guys and bad guys in it — the world of managers up against the world of circus. In the end you realize people can come together.”
Jumbo, until August 10 at Blyth Festival Theatre
Jamie Williams knows a lot about acting in comedic farces. The long-time actor has been in nearly two dozen, including many by the popular Canadian playwright Norm Foster. Now, he’s taken a turn as playwright with his first produced comedy, It’s Your Funeral, directed by Simon Joynes at the Port Stanley Festival Theatre.
“As far I can see the higher the stakes in a farce the funnier it is. When we are stressed out and we’re stuck for time there is a lot of opportunity for misunderstanding. When I looked at writing the farce I wanted something that was high stakes. That, plus I also thought that a funeral home would be a different and exciting setting for a farce,” says Williams.
Enter George and Helen, trying to restart their lives by going into the death business. Set in the 1950s in their new funeral home, the story focuses on the way the business had been operated by the former owner. Unlike British farces, this one is set in Canada — so no strained accents. “To write a farce in modern day is difficult because cell phones and computers make it easy to connect today so it’s harder to misunderstand and hide and cover up. Dating it in the 1950s puts it in a period of time where things are slowed down by the lack of technology.”
Williams says he is excited to see what Joynes does with the play. “He has a great eye and mind for farce so I really trust him with this. I can’t wait to sit in the audience this time and enjoy it!”
It’s Your Funeral, August 14 to September 7 at Port Stanley Festival Theatre
In these times of fake news on digital media, can a play from 1928 be modernized and made relevant for today’s audience? Bring on The Front Page at the Stratford Festival. There is sure to be plenty of interest in this rarely-produced play, which became famous in 1931 as a film.
It has been adapted by Michael Healey and is being directed by long-time Shakespearean actor, TV actor and recent director Graham Abbey. He’s a busy guy these days. Abbey is playing in The Merry Wives of Windsor at Stratford, he runs The Festival Players in Prince Edward County this summer (four shows), and he also directs Shakespeare in Toronto’s Groundling Theatre. And he has a four-year-old child. No wonder he’s taken an office in Stratford (his hometown). “I am absolutely crazy! It looked better on paper! Thankfully, I have lots of help,” he says.
Shaw Festival Theatre did a version of The Front Page in 1994 but it is not a play you see that often. “That’s really exciting for me,” says Abbey. “It’s a great comedy but a really great story. It has a lot of humanity and hopefully lots of laughs.”
This is the first farce of this magnitude for Abbey as a director. He knows the rhythms as an actor but he says he “certainly will be cutting my teeth in several directions” including directing his spouse, Michelle Giroux, as well as Stratford veterans Juan Chioran and Ben Carlson.
While the story fits the original era of the 1920s and ’30s, including dealing with racism and misogyny, Abbey says it makes sense for Stratford to put this on now as Healey has modernized some of the story by adding two roles: a female reporter and an African American reporter.
“Live theatre will always have a sense of commune — everything is alive and in the moment. When it is alive and clicking it’s like nothing else. This is an amazing era to play in — 1920s Chicago is a smorgasbord of excitement; it’s a world we don’t see, but it is relevant. It’s hard with a comedy as you have to keep it light but you can’t ignore the elephant in the room. We’re not steering the original script far from where it was. We do step in the Trumpian age of fake news. We haven’t had to step out too far as these [media corruption and justice] issues are still coming back around or have never gone away.”
The Front Page July 30 – October 25 at Stratford Festival Theatre