Launching the Canadian Comedia of Stewart Lemoine
Why is this brilliant playwright still a local boy?
by Anne Nothof
by Anne Nothof
On Sunday, October 16, NeWest Press and Teatro La Quindicina threw a party in the Varscona Theatre, Edmonton for the launching of Witness to a Conga and Other Plays by Stewart Lemoine. The playwright appeared as himself onstage, seated on a comfortable chair, and interviewed by CBC radio host, Peter Brown. He spoke about the genesis of his plays, his use of music, and the ways in which his characters are informed by the actors for whom they are created. Although a great time was had by all, the launch was attended by only a few loyal fans, theatre people, and NeWest staff, although the playwright has a large and enthusiastic following in the city. Even with free food and wine, book launches attract small audiences. And, inexplicably, with a couple of exceptions, Lemoine’s plays have yet to reach an audience in theatres across Canada.
This is the third publication by NeWest of Lemoine’s works, following A Teatro Trilogy: Selected Plays (2004), and At the Zenith of the Empire (2007). They are not best-sellers. So why launch the publication of a play collection? Why even publish plays? Because they are good. Because they deserve a wider audience. Because Lemoine has a distinctive, unique style that is not dependent on specific venues or particular actors.
Lemoine has been writing plays for his theatre company, Teatro La Quindicina for thirty years – typically at the rate of three a year. Some are zany farces, some are thoughtful portraits of individuals caught in moral and emotional dilemmas, working their way through confusion with a subtle sense of humour, and ironic introspection. In many ways, they constitute a Canadian Comedy of Manners, navigating through the eccentric behaviour of the characters to show that their divergence from the “norm” constitutes a creative impetus and freedom of spirit. The plays in A Teatro Trilogy - “Shockers Delight!”, “Pith” and “The Margin of the Sky” - demonstrate the power of the imagination to overcome personal catastrophe, and to imagine the possibility of a new emotional and physical space in which to live. In Lemoine’s plays, the creative imagination is a means by which fantasies become psychological realities, often transforming lives and offering the possibility of hope and redemption.
His more recent plays have been grounded in more local settings, but also take on wider issues. At the Zenith of the Empire imaginatively recreates the visit of Sarah Bernhardt to Edmonton in 1913, and her appearance at the Empire Theatre, playing the Parisian courtesan Marguerite Gauthier in La Dame aux Camelias. It humorously improvises on her opinion of the city published in the Chicago Record Herald, January 6, 1913: “I have arrived in Edmonton, which with remarkable rapidity will be ravishingly beautiful. At present it is a confusion of streets, mountains, rivers, buildings, valleys, very pretty houses, wooden barracks and tents ... the snow covers all; the cold is ferociously piercing. In Edmonton, there are fortunes to be made...”
The three plays in Witness to a Conga are among Lemoine’s most accomplished. “Happy Toes” (2008) follows the friendship of three men as they occasion, witness or experience the breakup of a marriage, and begin to understand that love is rarely recognized or understood. It also considers the ephemeral nature of happiness. “The Oculist’s Holiday” (2009) traces the consequences of a brief interlude in a Swiss hotel, and an encounter with a couple escaped from the pages of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. “Witness to a Conga” (2010) considers the possibility of harmonious relationships in a family fractured by divorce and misunderstanding. All are informed by music. Lemoine set the pace of “Happy Toes” to Les Barricades Mysterieuses by Francois Couperin, which, according to Lemoine “maintains an unerring, almost methodical sense of forward motion, even in the face of some fairly unexpected harmonic shifts and suspensions” (Witness to a Conga. NeWest P, 13). The incidental music in “The Oculist’s Holiday” consisted of excerpts from Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio #1, “an elegant yet often urgent work of poised intensity” (71), the slow movement linked to “the notion of a holiday from which one doesn’t return” (71). The music underscoring the protagonist’s painful memories of his parents in “Witness to a Conga” is taken from the Overture to Wagner’s opera Rienzi, and the final celebratory conga played by a full orchestra from Conga del Fuego by Arturo Marquez.
In his most recent productions, Lemoine picks up the tempo and indulges a more “screwball” comedy, without abandoning perspicacity. Hoof and Mouth Advantage explores the consequences of the sudden arrival of two impecunious vaudeville actors in a small prairie town in the 1930s, after they were thrown from the train. They undertake to make a few bucks by setting up a theatre school, with the least likely candidates for students, and as in Drama as Inish by Lennox Robinson, they transform the inhabitants – with sometimes dubious consequences. There’s lots of opportunity for song and dance in this play – exercising the full potential of theatre.