At Rosebud Theatre Opening Sept 22 through October 28
by Stephen Hunt
If the best actors are the most honest ones, then Rosebud is one lucky theatre company, because they have a whole slew of them.
Exhibit A might be Heather Pattengale, whether in a historic romance like Mary’s Wedding, a slightly surrealistic comedy like the Pulitzer Prize winning Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth – or her latest role.
That’s in The Christians, opening September 22, playing Elizabeth, the wife of Pastor Paul, the charismatic minister of a mega-church, who can do no wrong until the day he chucks his prepared sermon in order to shoot from the hip.
“He goes off-book and blurts out a conviction,” Pattengale says. “I don’t think the play takes sides on whether this is truth or not – the thing he decides to state – but it’s definitely his conviction, and that divides the congregation.”
Not to mention his relationships with the community – including Elizabeth.
“It’s really an examination of what (holding) a conviction costs someone,” she adds, “Especially in their relationships when all of a sudden, that conviction becomes more important than love.”
Written by Lucas Hnath, The Christians comes with an impressive theatrical pedigree as well, from its world premiere at the 2014 Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky – the top new works theatre festival in the United States – to a critically-acclaimed Off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons in New York in 2015 to an equally well-received 2015 production at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the drama has connected as strongly with secular theatre audiences as it has with devout ones.
For Rosebud artistic director Morris Ertman, who directs, one thing that The Christians shares with others that are part of its 2017 season – besides three shows featuring ministers – is its fearlessness.
“What happens when you put forward an idea,” he says, “from the pulpit of a megachurch, that there is no hell? That in fact God is the most ultra-inclusive being?
“And what does that look like?” he adds. “How does that tear that community apart? Can you live in that idea?”
What complicates – and humanizes – The Christians is that Pastor Paul’s ego gets invested in his ideas, Ertman says.
“The pastor…has a bit of hubris in him, too,” Ertman says. “He digs in, over the course of the play. He starts as an idealist, and he digs into his idea against all odds and it fractures (his life in the process) – so it’s a study of human nature, too.”
Pattengale is just one of a talented cast that includes David Snider, Jordan Cutbill, Judith Buchan, Caitlin O’Connor, Cassandra Garbutt, and Stephanie Lanting.
And if anything is a certainty in our uncertain world, it’s that Rosebud’s acting company can be relied upon to deliver excellent performances.
No one delivers the truth more consistently or passionately than Pattengale, who won a Calgary Theatre Critics Award in 2016 for her performance in the Rosebud production of Outside Mullingar.
Ertman knew the truth when he saw it – that Pattengale was something special – and when she left Rosebud and moved out west a few years back, he decided to pitch her on the possibility of returning.
“She’d left to get married, and I was doing a show in Vancouver, and I had her read for Fiddler,” he says. “ I just wanted her back, because she had the magic and the spirit.
“She’s just an extraordinary performer,” he says. “Fearless!”
Pattengale is one notable member of a prairie school of acting that’s turning out a number of memorable alumni, including Betty and Critter-winning Karl Sine and Lennette Randall who just spent the summer studying at a prestigious acting program in Cambridge, England.
What’s the secret? It’s simple, says Ertman.
“Everything from the training on to the work we do on stage at our theatre space has everything to do with open heartedness,” Ertman says.
For Pattengale, the truth is that the training she received at Rosebud is directly proportionate to her ability to connect completely to a character.
“Rosebud in particular,” she says, “is not only interested in mentoring actors and shaping actors, they’re interested in creating people – thoughtful, reflective, creative individuals. That part of the training helps me to understand myself better, which helps me to understand characters better.
And I really do go into any show I do just believing 100% in my character.
“I love people,” she says. “I love how quirky we all are and so I fall in love with my characters as well. I want to do them justice, and I want to do the playwright justice as well, and the story justice and my scene partners justice.
“I want to be the best I can be,” she says, “so they can be the best that they can be.”
Stephen Hunt is the 2017 Rosebud writer in residence
(Feature photo: Judith Buchan and Heather Pattengale, in Outside Mullingar, at Rosebud in spring, 2016. Both are part of the cast of The Christians. Photo courtesy Morris Ertman)