Friday, September 16, 2011

Review: (Ottawa) Amelia: The Girl Who Wants To Fly

The Magic of Flight
GCTC brings in a winner
by Jim Murchison

The GCTC opened its season with the much acclaimed Amelia: The Girl Who Wants to Fly. The play had already been a hit for the Festival Players of Prince Edward County. Plays that have a great deal of advance praise and expectation concern me a little because of the very real danger that I will feel mild disappointment or complete disdain. I needn’t have worried because Amelia is really magical story telling set to music. 

Amelia is less about Amelia and more about the mechanics of family and the machinery of myth building. Of course Amelia is the perfect vehicle to explore these themes, because the story is about the breaking of traditional roles, the courage to dream, the need to conquer fears and the exaggeration of truth through media exploitation. We tend to think that the reality series is some clever new invention when in fact it is as old as drawings on a cave. The real difference is the speed of the delivery and the intrusiveness of the voyeurism. The oxymoronic nature of “real life drama” has always been marketed and merchandised by the spin doctors. The fable of Earhart was the reality series of its day, each impromptu moment cleverly scripted, the public life produced as much as lived.

I laugh, knowing that we only get to know as much about our heroes as their handlers want us to know.

Amelia (Eliza-Jane Scott) shivers on a cold Newfoundland runway and I feel colder. Midge (Karen Randjola) snidely snipes about the size of her sister’s ego, or the shame of a family secret, and I relate to my own un-pursued dreams. G.P.(Steven Gallagher) hatches another scheme and I laugh, knowing that we only get to know as much about our heroes as their handlers want us to know. What makes this play work is that it equally shares the story between 3 gifted actors who skillfully support the story and each other. It is what true ensemble playing is about and what theatre should always strive to be. Raha Javanfar’s lighting helps support this team approach by muting some of the characters from time to time but never completely disengaging them. In fact the balance of the design, direction, writing and performance elements are rarely this finely blended.   

John Gray had wanted this story to be able to succeed as a reading in a living room and director Sarah Phillips’ direction and Jennifer Triemstra-Johnston’s design succeed admirably in allowing that intimacy and connection to the audience evolve in a very natural way. Three stairs angling out at both ends lead you house left to a modest kitchen; Amelia’s sister Midge’s domain, and house right to the office of G.P. (George Putnam) Amelia’s Publicist and later, her husband. Upstage centre at the top of the stairs is the piano. Musical director Michael Barber, back to the audience, plays it throughout the play never turning around, never interfering with the storytellers while he musically supports them in their tale.

When Amelia flies, you are drawn into the fear and exhilaration; the pain and exhaustion and ultimately the triumph or despair.

Front and centre in the open space is where Amelia flies. Early on she stands on a small stool. As her legend grows a tall, stool-like ladder replaces the smaller perch bringing her higher and making her larger than life and closer to the sky. When Amelia flies, you are drawn into the fear and exhilaration; the pain and exhaustion and ultimately the triumph or despair. This is not accomplished through elaborate effects or the recorded droning of engines. There are no recorded sounds, no machines that make Amelia fly and that is what makes it remarkably powerful and allows the audience to fly with her.  Her death is not overly dramatic. It is as inevitable, expected and acceptable as the fading of a legend that leaves the entourage wondering who they really are and where they go from here.

In addition to all this, there is a mood setting exhibition of aeronautic memorabilia, and an artwork exhibition of Meghan Myres inspired by the play. The artwork is for sale, but get it quickly as I overheard the artist exclaiming that one sold last night. In support of GCTC’s commitment to the community, there is also an opportunity afforded for girls 14 – 18 to meet with extraordinary women from diverse positions in the aeronautic industry. Vintage Wings is sponsoring this chance to look beyond traditional roles and Reach for the Sky. Afterwards, the girls will be treated to a special matinee of Amelia. Well done!

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