Theatre Columbus seems to have started a new Christmastime theatrical tradition in Toronto. The Story, an offbeat nativity play written by Martha Ross, is now being performed for the second year in and around in the Evergreen Brick Works in the Don Valley.
Artistic director Jennifer Brewin, who won a Dora Mayor Moore award for the show’s promenade staging last year, previously put on a number of outdoor winter works at B.C.’s Caravan Farm Theatre. Ontarians are relatively inexperienced with the joys of seeing plays in sub-zero temperatures, however, so some advice: Wear warm socks, buy a hot chocolate, and bring a friend to huddle with.
The Story is enjoyable in part because it feels connected to a long and somewhat lost theatrical tradition. Its staging and simple script makes it seem like a modern incarnation of a Mystery play, the medieval biblical pageants that predated playhouses. They were performed outdoors too, on a series of wagons – and while sometimes the stages moved, sometimes it was the audience that was ambulatory. In the Mystery cycles, various craft guilds tackled different stories from the Bible that would allow them to advertise their skills – the shipwrights’ might tell the story of Noah, while nail makers tended to handle the crucifixion.
With that history in mind, it seems fitting that the nativity story should be performed in the spot where, though now a trendy farmer’s market and brunch spot, the bricks used to build landmarks like Casa Loma and Massey Hall were once fired. (“No room at the inn? Have you considered buying your own bricks on layaway?”)
The Story begins with a prologue starring the three wise men (Neema Bickersteth, Sanjay Talwar, Jeff Yung), depicted in time-honoured fashion as actually quite foolish. They quarrel with one another about “dark matter” and the “space-time continuum” and how they ended up lost in 2012.
We follow them out from the market area and into surrounding nature, lit evocatively and inventively by Glenn Davidson, serenaded on our way by a choir singing carols.
All the usual suspects soon show up in similarly clownish incarnations – a couple of bored shepherds watching their flocks by night; a romantic carpenter named Joseph (Yung again); and a confused but questioning Mary (Haley McGee).
Herod, with all his histrionic ranting, was the over-the-top biblical character medieval audiences loved to hate in the Mystery cycles. (Though Hamlet was not a fan, warning the players not to “out-Herod Herod.”) Rylan Wilkie similarly steals the show as the vain ruler here; his preening, paranoid Herod is amusing in the manner of the best campy Bond villains.
Wilkie – a favourite Western Canadian actor I’m delighted to see pop up this side of the Prairies – also doubles wonderfully as a hapless angel Gabriel, who isn’t quite sure how best to break the news to Mary that she’s pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Gabriel – flailing around under a LED-lit halo – is not entirely sure what the Holy Spirit is and, while trying to explain the matter to Joseph in a dream, confuses the matter by breaking into HMS Pinafore.
Talwar proves a fine Beckettian clown, meanwhile, as a shepherd who stares up at the stars and ponders the meaning of life and the birth of jazz. In a nod to the late Dave Brubeck, he and fellow flock-watcher Bickersteth break into rendition of Take Five.
As The Story takes us past the frozen meadows surrounding the Brick Works, it becomes clear that Ross is not all that interested in the birth of baby Jesus, but in a more secular question: Why do we tell each other stories of hope and change, when hope always fades and change never comes? Why do we want to believe that a saviour will be born?
Ross’s script can lay it on a little thick with its “we are looking for the story” shtick. Is this a nativity play or just naivete? But with its existential bent balanced by its warnings of the dangers of mandatory government censuses, The Story should please just about everyone part of the time. The little girl giggling maniacally on opening night seemed to like it, and helped the rest of us get into the spirit of the season.