by Lucia Frangione
At Rosebud Opera House through December 23
Four and a half stars
Review by Stephen Hunt
One is a dead-broke, widowed racist saloon owner, mired in a 19th-century recession. Another is a depressed alcoholic Presbyterian minister intent upon drinking himself to death. Another is an unwed mother-to-be from Germany, stuck in America. And the other is an orphan of indeterminate ethnicity, who prefers to be identified as a ‘Canadian’.
Meet the quartet of bedraggled, lost souls who band together to form the (fake) theatre company that propels Lucia Frangione’s deliciously funny – and moving – Cariboo Magi, which opened Friday for a holiday run at Rosebud Theatre.
The lunacy is launched, one day in 1870 when saloonkeeper Madame Fanny Debeau (Norma Roth) awakes to discover that a group of broke actors who have been living upstairs have bolted back to England, skipping out of their bill.
When a contract for the departed troupe arrives in the mail, summoning them to perform a holiday show in gold rush boomtown Barkerville, B.C., Madame Fanny enlists the minister William Teller (Nathan Schmidt), the orphan Joe Mackey (Zach Running Coyote) and the pregnant, unwed Marta Reddy (Anna Dalgleish) to join her and impersonate the Brits, setting off a journey up the California coast, deep into the British Columbia interior, in the middle of a freezing 19th century Canadian winter.
(Nathan Schmidt, Zach Running Coyote and Norma Roth in Cariboo Magi. Photo courtesy Rosebud Theatre)
That means a long, picaresque, frequently frosty journey that doubles as rehearsal time for their intended presentation, of some or all of The Last of the Mohicans, A Christmas Carol, and Hamlet.
Roth’s Madame Fanny is the catalyst who propels the story into motion, propelling the misfits into a wilderness adventure none of them desires or is capable of enduring, save perhaps for Joe Mackey, who Franny mistakes for a Mohican.
And what a catalyst she proves to be! Roth channels Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther renown, spewing Franglais malapropisms as she rages against the ethnic orphan Joe, maligns Reverend Teller (even as she sort of likes him), and dodges lien holders and bullets flying through the saloon from the angry landlord trying to collect the back rent.
Roth is a physical performer; right from the moment William Teller appears on his back, in her saloon, offering to swap his gold cross for enough house whiskey to finish him off once and for good, Roth and Schmidt perform a virtual comedy dance piece on the small Rosebud stage.
(Nathan Schmidt and Norma Roth performed the other two roles in the original 2002 production of Cariboo Magi. Photo courtesy Rosebud Theatre.)
Director Paul Muir demonstrates masterful comedic feel here; every single scene of physical action is rooted in the absurdity of Frangione’s fine script, and Muir consistently finds just the right blend of storytelling, silliness – and holiday sweetness.
He’s assisted every step of the way with strong performances from Roth, Running Coyote and Dalgleish, and none more so than Schmidt, who’s in a comedy league all his own as the fall-down drunk William Teller.
Set design transforms the stage
The opera house’s stage is pretty narrow, and you can feel the staging challenge faced by Muir in trying to tell such a sprawling story, set, alternately, in California, Barkerville, and along various remote trails – but true to Rosebud’s innovative spirit, set and costume designer Hanne Loosen does a superb job with banners, screens, and a deep set that somehow manages to convey an epic journey that covers only 20 or so feet.
By the time they take the stage in Barkerville, the actors are mortified to discover they’ve rehearsed the wrong scripts. As a result, their improvised nativity scene becomes a surreal blend of A Christmas Carol, Hamlet, The Last of the Mohicans – and reality television.
As absurdity piles upon absurdity, the characters grow more rooted to the adventure – and to each other, producing an ending that’s every bit as moving as that holiday movie where Jimmy Stewart discovers the true meaning of Christmas.
Or, as one audience member lined up in the bathroom after the show. “That was just awesome. I haven’t laughed that much in a long, long time.”
(Feature photo: Nathan Schmidt, Norma Roth, Anna Dalgleish and Zach Running Coyote in Cariboo Magi. Photo courtesy Rosebud Theatre).
Stephen Hunt is Rosebud’s 2017 Writer in Residence