It’s a Norse-inspired start to the dark and cold of the theatre year – from the chanting and thread-spinning witches of the Malachite Theatre production of the Scottish play being reminiscent of the Norns who control destinies in Norse mythology, to a more explicit tribute to the gods, goddesses, and other beings of the traditions in Harley Morison’s new work KaldrSaga: A Queer Tavern Drama for a Midwinter’s Night, playing at The Almanac until Jan 26th.
Nasra Adem and Jake Tkaczyk play storytelling friends Saga and Kaldr, who meet once a year at a pub midway between their homes, to tell stories together and drink and catch up. And Saga and Kaldr then play the characters in the stories they’re telling, stories from their own history (that include encounters with gods and goddesses, giants, a magpie named Pica, and other beings), and stories of the gods. I don’t know a lot about Norse mythology (and I’d know even less if it weren’t for the Marvel Cinematic Universe reminding me about Thor and Loki, Asgard and Midgard and Bifröst.) but it didn’t really matter – it’s just a bonus to enjoying the stories that now I can look up the names I can remember – Kvasir, Mothi, Sif, Freya.
Sometimes it appeared that the stories were part of a familiar repertoire and we saw the storytellers negotiating as part of clarifying how the game worked. (“You started this one without me?” “I don’t want to do this one!” “The word fuckboi was not in my mother’s vocabulary!”) Off the top, the first character to enter endowed the audience with being the pub audience waiting for stories – and this was easy, in the narrow back room of The Almanac with the performers moving back and forth between their tables and their bar (staffed during performance by their stage manager), and the audience seated along the opposite wall. In telling the stories, they often shifted between characters, sometimes each of them taking a turn with a character as the narrative needed, using common physicality and voice to keep the continuity (like Jamie Cavanagh and Chris Cook in 3…2…1 or like Jim Libby and Jacob Banigan of Rocket Sugar Improv). This was almost always easy to follow with their shifts of voice and physicality, and sometimes also delightful (the cats pulling Freya’s chariot, and then Freya driving the chariot).
The storytellers told the stories of how they’d met and how they’d come to be travelling. We learned that they both identified as queer, and that they were both finding better lives on the road than the ones expected by their parents and in their home villages. We learned how they got to be good storytellers (a deity is involved). Kaldr, who’s left his home village because of taunts about being gay, seeks out Lofn, the goddess of forbidden love, in hopes she can make things right. “I’m just like a marriage commissioner” she shrugs, “changing someone’s mind is harder. For that, you need an army.”
They also told stories of the gods, often with an emphasis on queerness. There’s a really great sequence at drag-queen open-mic night (including an original song composed by Rebecca Merkley and choreography by C.J. Rowein) And there’s a hopeful twist on how they get the aforementioned army for changing minds.
Near the end, there’s a bit that made my seat-mate and me both shiver with apprehension about what we thought was coming next … but then it didn’t seem to happen the way we were expecting, and we weren’t sure afterwards if it was just a more subtle version of the destiny hinted at, or if the more-open-ended finish suggested they were avoiding that destiny … we didn’t know, but we were both engaged with what would happen to these two likeable characters, Kaldr and Saga.
The play was a great opportunity for the actors to show us many different characters and make them distinct and interesting. Nasra Adem is a former youth poet laureate of Edmonton. Their storytelling benefited from the rhythms and style of their spoken-word performance, and it was great to watch their characters bantering and calling-out with joyful confidence. Jake Tkaczyk’s acting roles have included Caliban in The Tempest, Lady Laura Lee the mysterious bridal shop owner in Don’t Frown at the Gown, a western sidekick of Pretty Boy Floyd the early 20th-century bank robber, and a badly-behaved young teenager in Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant…Ever, and in KaldrSaga he created some very different characters. One of my favourite stories was the one where a travelling carver/artist (Adem) barters with a hostile tavern owner (Tkaczyk), one carved chess piece for food and lodging. Elise Jason was production designer – without making many changes in the bar venue, they used a few simple touches to set us into the pub of mythic storytelling, with the characters’ costumes just slightly set apart from the current norms by a bit more fur and a few more weapons.
I also loved the insertions of current cultural references (Beyoncé, Grindr, a god having not only subjects but “followers”) and cellphone use.
Tickets are available through the Cardiac Theatre website for performances to January 26th, including two performances today (Saturday Jan 12th) at 4 pm and 8 pm.