This month the Williams Lake Studio Theatre has brought a heartfelt but absurd comedy to the stage in the form of Cariboo Magi, a dinner theatre style show running from Nov. 13 to Nov 23.
From the moment you walk into the TRU Gymnasium, you get the sense this will be a far more involved play than most WLST productions. The stage and audience mix together as there are three main sets scattered throughout the gymnasium around which the tables are arranged. As the characters go on a physical journey you’ll be able to follow their progress yourself, all from the comfort of your own seat.
Cariboo Magi is a distinctly Canadian comedy set during the height of the Barkerville Gold Rush in the 1860s that tells the story of four down on their luck ‘actors’ that meet in San Diego; a mixed-race Canadian looking to reconnect with an old flame, a fiery and vainglorious saloon owner-cum dancing troupe leader, a pregnant former child star enraged by her old flame and a drunken, forlorn, disgraced Anglican minister who has renounced the church. All have skeletons in their closet, sometimes literally, but they come together in the hope of making some money performing a Christmas Pageant for the Theatre Royal up north in British Columbia, the Columbia “below Alaska.” Along the way, they’ll share heartwarming moments, plenty of humorous quips and barbs and come together as a quasi family.
The first thing prospective audiences should know and indeed is observed by director Cathie Hamm is that Cariboo Magi was written in the language and culture of the time. This means several racial pejoratives are used throughout the play, though none are serious slurs. That being said, they’re always used in character and never maliciously.
The play opens with our intrepid Canadian Joe Mackey, brought to life by Gavin McKimm, a translator and prospector in Barkerville recounting, through a poem, how he’d known a girl once months ago in San Diego he now seeks to wed. McKimm gives a very steady and understated performance, one that carries over throughout the play, providing a straight man to the more eccentric characters. While there are times he may lack emotional intensity, the earnest and lovable nature he gives Mackey helps balance out his performance.
The tone of the play is truly set, however, by the introduction of the ‘French’ accented, gun-toting and near-bankrupt saloon keeper Fanny DuBeau, played brilliantly by Kathy MacDonald. Unlike McKimm there is little subtle in MacDonald’s performance as she boldly and loudly strides across the stage, firing off bullets as regularly as quips and subtle innuendoes. It’s an incredibly consistent performance throughout the play that not only feels authentic but provides the driving energy behind both the rest of the performance and the overall plot itself.
This absurd and dramatic tone is immediately met in her male counterpart William Teller, played fittingly by William Wallace, who lurches onto the stage and collapses in a self-pitying heap, begging for a drink or a bullet to drown the sorrow of “divorcing” from the Church. Wallace turns in a familiar comedic performance, many a laugh can be gained simply by watching his face during scenes, yet as the play progresses it gains more depth and feels authentic. As a man of the cloth, former or otherwise, Wallace puts on the voice of an orator, grand and long-winded, yet never makes it feel cheesy and instead something his character does out of habit.
Marta Reddy, as portrayed by Bailey Hutton, is a dash of needed crossness, irritation and authenticity that along with McKimm helps balance out the cast. While her pregnant belly looks ridiculous, likely by design, Hutton acts and conducts herself like an actual expectant first-time mother whose partner seemingly abandoned her for close to a year. Her emotional performance provides some of Cariboo Magi’s most striking scenes and provides the emotional core the story needs, though a slight German accent might have enhanced her performance.
It’s only when they’re all together, though, does the cast truly shine bringing both laughter and heart to the stage. It helps that both the older couple and the younger couple serve as foils for one another.
McKimm’s steadiness is balanced out nicely by Hutton’s more visceral emotional responses and when they’re on stage together she’s able to draw out subtle hints of emotion from him. You can feel that sort of despair when he talks of having ‘no people of his own’ as an orphan and the likewise love she still has kept kindled in her heart for him, despite his transgressions.
MacDonald, meanwhile, is often reigned in by Wallace’s character who does his ineffectual best to curb her many eccentricities and appeal to her better angels. There’s a will they or won’t they to their relationship that remains throughout the play as a sort of subtle tension you see in all of their interactions.
The group’s dynamic is perhaps best summed up by one of MacDonald’s funnier lines in the second act “we are short on zaints here, I have to cast ze zinners.”
Cariboo Magi’s set is simple and basic due in part to being outside of the WLST’s space. That being said, the set they have is effective at conveying time and place and they use it creatively, taking advantage of the opportunity to run amongst the audience. At times, however, projection suffers for some actors as they move from space to space.
Lighting wise this set was always going to be a challenge and next to one or two moments where it was too dark or dimly lit, it was a challenge that was met by Curt Sprickerhoff. Sprickerhoff expertly manned the lighting panel to light three separate mini-stages, a challenge for any lightning technician, ensuring the actors were well and appropriately lit, making use of blue and yellow light to signify warmth and cold.
Sound meanwhile was expertly manned by theatre veteran Brad Lawryk and was smooth throughout the production. From gunshots to cold winter winds, sound and music were used to enhance the atmosphere of the production in an unobtrusive way.
The costumes are excellent and feel period-appropriate, each reflecting their characters perfectly.
All in all, if you’re looking for a Christmas-themed comedy about human relationships, Cariboo Magi is well worth the night out. If for nothing else, go for the ending as that is when the actors and the play is at its most hysterical and delightfully absurd.
The run begins with two dessert-only shows on Nov. 13 and 14 with tickets going for $35 each. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. for the 7 p.m. show, with desserts served at intermission.
Following this, Nov. 15, 16, 20, 21, 22 and 23 are the traditional dinner theatre nights with doors opening at 5: 30 p.m., dinner scheduled for 6 p.m., show starting at 7 p.m. and dessert, once more, being served at intermission for the price of $65 a person. A brunch show will occur on Nov. 17 for $65 with doors opening at 11 a.m., brunch at 11:30 a.m. and the show scheduled for 12:30 p.m.
Tickets are on sale now primarily at The Open Book, however, producer Mary-Jo Hilyer confirmed on Tuesday, Nov. 12 that tickets will be available at the door, as Sure Catering has indicated they can accommodate extra people providing they’re not sold out. Those looking to attend for sure should buy their tickets in advance to secure their spot.