This weekend I saw two great solo performances. At Canoe Festival I saw Alan Williams in The Girl with Two Voices, and at the Citadel I saw Shawn Smyth in Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story. I could also have seen Jon Lachlan Stewart’s Lavinia, which I had been looking forward to, but I didn’t end up seeing it. I will definitely watch for another opportunity to see that though.
Alan Williams’ story was told to small groups of twenty at a time, sitting around a meeting-room table in Knox Evangelical Free Church, across the walkway from the Arts Barns. The performer took a seat at the end of the table and started telling his story without introduction, explanation, a pause, or even much eye contact with the audience, as if we had walked in while he was telling a longer story to someone else. He talked for more than an hour and a half while we listened, sometimes chuckling, and the passage of time was only noticeable because the room was too cold. He used no notes, and his narration was so well prepared that it felt off-the-cuff.
He told the story of moving to London without much money or prospects, finding a place to live, making the Kew Gardens neighbourhood home, and trying to get acting work, in the late 1990s. The story was partly chronological, with interruptions explaining the background of friendships and choices, and it was full of odd characters that he described both pointedly and affectionately. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with his friends Janet and Jim. Jim, he told us, who was about two years old at the time – rather than treat the child as an adjunct of his friend, the narrator kept talking about Jim as an individual with some odd behaviours.
There was some symbolism, some repetition of theme, and some conclusion, but all of them very subtle. He is one of the best pure storytellers I have ever seen in person. One of the festival announcements compared him to Spaulding Grey, whose recorded narrative Swimming to Cambodia about making the film The Killing Fields was my first exposure to first-person storytelling as a performance option, many years ago.
Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story is currently running at the Maclab stage in the Citadel Theatre complex, as a co-production with Prairie Theatre Exchange of Winnipeg. Ron Jenkins directed. The script is credited to Kirstie McLellan Day, co-author of Theoren Fleury’s autobiography of the same name. Shaun Smyth originated the role of Theo Fleury in the premiere production at Alberta Theatre Projects in 2012.
For this show, the staging and effects were a big part of the fun and the mood creation. The performer spends the whole performance on skates and in hockey equipment, skating and shooting on a small artificial skating surface with a realistic-looking backdrop of hockey arena boards and bench, which worked for all the settings from the small-town arena of his childhood to the NHL and Olympic games. The seats at the far edges of the Maclab were blocked off, possibly due to blocked views but also possibly as a precaution in case any of the performer’s shots missed the nets. (But none of them did! Shaun Smith’s skating, stickhandling, and wristshot/snapshot abilities were impressive enough to be convincing and to allow him to move smoothly on the small cluttered surface and create excitement.) The sound effects and the projected video images provided additional content and made the Maclab feel so much like a hockey rink that I kept thinking I felt a draft.
Most of the performance involved the actor speaking directly to the audience as the player Theo Fleury telling the story of his life and career, from his first skating steps around age 5 to his senior-league games after a comeback in his 40s. I found it a difficult story to hear, because of what the performer wryly called “the part about the molestation” (Theoren Fleury having been one of the players who was sexually abused as a teenager by coach Graham James). He told that part of the story while sitting down on the front edge of the stage, with painful credible directness and the self-awareness of adult hindsight.
Milestones of his career and hockey events that I remembered included the bench-clearing brawl at the World Juniors in 1987, the Flames Stanley Cup win in his rookie season in 1989, the Olympic championship in Salt Lake City in 2002. He told the key parts of these stories with the help of scoreboards and hockey cards on the video screen – and as an interesting touch, the hockey cards all had an A-Tee-Pee logo in the style of the real O-Pee-Chee one (ATP being Alberta Theatre Projects, the production company of the premiere). The foreshadowing in the first act – the abuse that he tried to forget, the first taste of alcohol, the first experience with cocaine, the affairs with strippers and the failed relationships – then escalated as his life got more out of control and his playing career fell apart. The sports water-bottles sitting on the nets were used as props for tales of binge-drinking, and projection of a craps table onto the stage floor/ice surface backed up the episodes of transferring his addiction to gambling.
Except for the convicted child abuser Graham James, and possibly the player’s flawed parents, the narrative doesn’t name names to criticize anyone else, consistent with AA testimony custom of taking responsibility but also convenient for anyone worried about liability issues. Various other team officials and family members were mentioned as supporting him and challenging him to get his life under control. The only other player whose personality came through was Wayne Gretzky, in two flattering anecdotes, one where he is playing on the opposing team and hauls Fleury out of a fight after he’s injured, and another when he recruits Fleury to the 2002 Olympic squad. This narrative choice also emphasized the solitary nature of Fleury’s personal struggles.
Playing With Fire continues at the Citadel until February 15th. Tickets are available here.