For anyone who has been delivered the worst possible news, there is that moment that becomes forever etched in the history of your life, when everything changes irrevocably. It's the moment not necessarily of the tragedy, but of the telling.
In The Life Inside, the Canadian creative team of James Fagan Tait and Joelysa Pankanea ( Crime and Punishment) explores this crossover from blissful ignorance to crushing grief - in a musical. Inspired by Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck's 1895 one-act play Intérieur, the commission by Victoria's Belfry Theatre is the largest in its history, with 15 actor-singers and four onstage musicians. It has its world premiere on Nov. 18.
In Maeterlinck's Intérieur, an old man who has discovered a dead girl in the river hovers outside her house. Gathering the strength to break the terrible news, he is rattled by what he sees through the windows: a happy family scene he knows he is about to extinguish.
The tension created by this juxtaposition is palpable, unbearable - the kind of drama, if you'll pardon the pun, made for the theatre. Yet it is rarely performed, perhaps because of its unusual theatrical qualities: It's short, about 45 minutes, and dominated by two characters looking into a house. "I don't think it's on the top of everybody's must-do list," Tait says.
There is a long-held belief that Maeterlinck, a Nobel Prize-winning Symbolist master who died in 1949, intended Intérieur to be performed with marionettes. Not so, Tait says.
Sent on the wild-marionette chase himself, he discovered that this thinking probably resulted from the fact that Intérieur was included inexplicably with two other short plays in a publication called The Marionette Plays. The marionette theory never made sense to Tait. "That's a misnomer. It was written originally as a play; that's all. It may have been done as a marionette play subsequently, but I would doubt it. It's very people-demanding."
Tait saw a production of Intérieur at a regional theatre in suburban Paris in 1986 and never forgot it. "I was quite blown away," he remembers.
The Life Inside is not a direct translation but a value-added adaptation. Tait, who is bilingual, translated Intérieur from the French and then built upon that with new scenes and an amplified role for the chorus.
In the original, the villagers appear near the end, bearing the body of the girl. In The Life Inside, the villagers are there from the beginning, narrating the story for the audience and underscoring the importance of community in finding life again after a death.
After translating the work, Tait lyricized about three-quarters of it, and Pankanea got to work composing. With the subject matter, she found herself gravitating toward ballads and "all kinds of sad, sappy places," she says. But she fought against that compulsion.
"The idea is to not go too dark with the sound at any given time, but to play against that darkness that's the theme of the play with a little bit of lightness in the music, and give a bit of character to the music so that people come alive inside the story."
Onstage, four musicians play upright bass, harp, violin, marimba and percussion - all acoustic.
Yes, the subject matter is a "huge bummer," Tait says, but, more than anything, it's a meditation on death, a chance to talk about a subject that affects everyone at a time when the discussion might not be coloured by personal loss.
"Infrequently in life do we get a chance to talk about death unless we're in the midst of a grieving period because of a death close to us," he says. "This play is great because ... it allows an audience - whether they're connected to death immediately or not - to enter into the zone of death, but also to look at life: the values in life, the value of life."
The Life Inside is in previews in Victoria beginning on Tuesday. It opens Thursday (www.belfry.bc.ca).