On Friday night, I attended the Catalyst Theatre production The Soul Collector, written, directed, and composed by Jonathan Christenson. Early on, I thought that it was never going to make sense to me, and I worried that I’d have to ask my theatregoing companions, both actors, to explain to me what had happened. My first impressions were about chill and dark and gloom. The stage was set with upside-down bare white trees, a glistening black roadway or path down a hill with white markings, wind, eerie music, and periodic snowfalls. At first, all the characters had costumes in shades of brown and grey, with bits of black and white. It was hard to identify them as contemporary or from any specific other period, but the colours and hats and one character’s dark glasses evoked a somewhat steampunk aesthetic.
A story began to be built, with anecdotes from the past being told to an apparently-present-day character, Memory McQuade (Karyn Mott). Many of the two-person stories involved a death. Early on, people started warning of a Soul Collector. At first I thought the Soul Collector referred to the mythical horned-man figure dressed in white shorts and disturbingly uneven clawed hands, but I was confused because they seemed to be warning of “She”. The horned figure was the Winter Hart (Brett Dahl, seen recently in The Missionary Position at U of A), and the Soul Collector turned out to be female, an Ice Queen archetype just as scary as the White Witch of Narnia (Elinor Holt). Memory McQuade’s guides to the world or near-underworld or whatever it was were the blind mortician Mortimer (Clinton Carew) and the boy Gideon Glumb (Benjamin Wardle). My eye kept being drawn to the boy Gideon because of an awkwardly-contorted arm, which made his hands look abnormally large. I noticed that in some scenes (dancing) he didn’t have a deformity, but in the present-day ones he did, and I kept looking for an acknowledgement or explanation. One character offering a bit of comic relief was Popcorn Pete (Garett Ross). The storytelling patterns and the not-quite-realistic setting began to remind me of Charles de Lint’s stories.
Some things became clear by the end. Not everything. And several of the odd things I recalled from early on ended up falling into place, not explained explicitly but easy enough to figure out that I felt satisfied by the narrative. I was also astonished at the curtain call to realise that there had only been nine performers, since I hadn’t always gotten a good look at the characters in the dark and in their bundles of winter clothing, and I hadn’t realised that I’d been seeing the same actors over and over. I remained somewhat frustrated that I had had trouble picking up the words of the sung bits over the projected music, but one of my companions pointed out that the words were almost superfluous to the point of the musical bits which were to communicate mood, and they certainly did that.
When I left the theatre, I decided it was the most elliptical and cryptic storytelling I’d encountered since Free-Man on the Land last January. And it continued to hold that record for almost 24 hours.