Once again, Carousel Players has come up with a timely play that speaks to many people on many levels. While mostly intended for the middle primary grades, much older kids and adults alike can take something away if only they choose to hear.
Playwright Daniel Karasik has taken on the always-challenging task of keeping developing minds engaged, entertained and informed over the course of fifty minutes. The twin goal is to simultaneously rivet their parents and teachers. With The Remarkable Flight of Marnie McPhee, the results are mixed.
Tellingly at the post-performance Q&A, one young man asked the skilled cast “What was the main idea?” Using the standard pedagogical device of turning the tables, the sincere student could only reply. “I don’t know ….”
The premise is grand and full of promise. Nine-year old Marnie (Sarah English brings a delightful tone and understanding to the role that must carry the show) is desperate to escape the world of her family. She fears “becoming like they are.” Constructing a spaceship to take her off to Mars seems an excellent solution. 16-year-older brother Alan is hopelessly smitten with an older (unseen) woman from Chile—that’s a definite gross-out from Marnie’s point of view. Pining for her in his aptly postered (Che Guevara) room, Colin Doyle renders the misunderstood sibling with a great sense of believability but skips so quickly through a pivotal line (“Nobody pays you to do something that’s unnecessary to anyone but you.”) that its emotional and dramatic payoffs are severely weakened.
Andrea Scott is an appropriately harried/loving mother. Caring for her own invalid mom (as well as the family McPhee) helps fill in the time and blot out an aching regret for never pursuing an opera career. (A wee leitmotif centred around lost hearts and dreams effectively links mother-son angst.) As head of the McPhee clan, Dad puts on a brave face: the trained astronaut never got “the call” so spends much of his time peering at heavenly bodies (the dying star metaphor works well) through a telescope or lost in the possibility of scientific books. From his first “pop out” (delightfully Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In style) to the stage, Graeme Somerville gives a spot-on depiction of the regretful engineer who never moved beyond the realm of theoretical galaxy explorer.
Attending the 29th performance thus far, it was instructive to gauge the humour metre with the largely attentive crowd (disappointingly, it was the teachers who added far more unwanted chatter than their charges—let’s hope that lesson wasn’t learned). The butchered French (“Swiss” instead of “suis” et cetera) drew barely a snicker. The language of “Chill” (see offstage heartthrob above) and “ladles and Germans” (in Marnie’s best emcee tone) fell flat. The hardly necessary bathroom reference (just the word “poo” seems to be enough) and lets-be-topical gay reference (we learn Uncle Jimmy “likes guys” but nothing more about him) filled the gymnasium with laughter, exchanged looks of fun and a general hubbub that effectively drowned out the ensuing lines. Here’s where a rethink might prove helpful if the important messages around isolation are to find their way into everyone’s consciousness and spark post-play conversations.
Intriguingly, importantly, the notion of early suicide lurks quietly in Marnie’s desire to be alone. When actually “in space” the cold and complete “quietude” brought on the glimmer of a different sort of chill. Even at such tender ages, delving a little further into this “taboo” could give Marnie’s struggle with herself and those around her extra meaning. It’s never too soon to lay the seeds: “All you hear is your hoping,” is an excellent point of departure.
Designer Michael Greves has found an inventive way of moving the family up and down their staircases and into the stars above (artfully rendered by Chris Greenhalgh). Using back projections on a stage-dominating screen, the eye is readily convinced that the scenes have changed (Gavin Fearon’s percussion-rich sound design effectively reinforces the transitions—the sudden shower from banjo heaven is a hoot, if unlikely to be the channel of choice from smitten Alan).
Director Pablo Felices-Luna has once more employed his special talent of guiding rather than pushing the cast and crew. The overall pace seldom flags and the bits of business are clearly custom made for the actors. Marnie’s “flight” deserves to touch down in as many schools as possible even as some of its lines upstage the most important points under discussion. JWR