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vancouverplays review


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— The cast. Photo: David Cooper

By Nicola Cavendish
Arts Club Theatre Company
Granville island Stage
Nov. 28-Dec. 28
$29-$49 or 604-687-1644

I first reviewed Nicola Cavendish’s It’s Snowing on Saltspring in 1985. That seems now like another galaxy far, far away. Nelson Mandela was still in prison, CBC radio still covered theatre, you could buy a house on the west side for under $200,000, and the Arts Club had only two venues.

The play premiered at the intimate 200-seat Seymour Street stage where Cavendish, who had already established herself as an extraordinary young performer, delighted audiences with a script that combined wacky, imaginative humour and sweet, gentle sentiment, a combination that would become her trademark as both actor and writer. The Arts Club has revived the play at least five times since then with different casts. For some of us it’s like an old friend paying a welcome visit at Christmas time.

It’s Snowing on Saltspring perfectly illustrates why the Arts Club has become one of Canada’s most successful theatre companies. Artistic director Bill Millerd cultivates local talent and local stories, encourages his actors to write plays, and presents those plays to his audiences over and over. Getting to know the actors and playwrights, audiences develop a sense of loyalty that brings them back year after year. When you go to an Arts Club play you feel like part of a community.

Cavendish has revised and updated the script for a new generation of theatregoers but its essence remains intact in Lois Anderson’s production. Bill Bannister (Andrew McNee) is a dentist deeply immersed in mid-life crisis. He has taken a break from the profession he hates, moving out of Vancouver to a waterfront cabin on Saltspring with his very pregnant wife Sarah (Juno Rinaldi) and their big, feisty dog Karma.

It’s Christmas Eve, Sarah is two weeks overdue, but humbugger Bill has the blues. He can’t get excited about either imminent event, although he has managed to create a miniature nativity scene using the tools of his trade and some leftover pulled teeth–a nice illustration of Cavendish’s gently absurd humour. Joseph is a molar and Mary a bicuspid.

Bill and Sarah are visited by their happy, horny neighbours Martha (Deborah Williams) and her clergyman husband (Joel Wirkkunen). Martha describes him as ”full of the holy-moly spirit!” But not even her excellent man-with-five-penises joke can lift Bill’s spirits.

Bill is so depressed he has even decided to sell the cabin. Enter lesbian realtor Bernice Snarpley (Beatrice Zeilinger), who has her own problems: loneliness and a broken heart over girlfriend Shirl back in Saskatchewan, who left Bernice for Canada’s hot water heater king.

Bill, it turns out, has some pretty dark daddy issues that are only going to be resolved via seasonal dream reversion therapy. Through the magic of theatre Cavendish sends him to the North Pole, where everyone speaks in rhyme. Santa (Wirkkunen) and his Mrs. (Williams), Rudolph and some elves give Bill a taste of the true Christmas spirit. He gets to be a kid again, and on his return home Christmas morning there’s a nativity scene awaiting him that … Well heck, I wouldn’t want to spoil Christmas morning for you.

Ted Roberts’ set design for Santa’s workshop is full of surprises and Michael Rinaldi’s witty sound effects add a nice comic dimension to the scene, although it’s hard to understand the elves through their masks and there’s a lot of physical business that doesn’t pay off. The jokes might also have been better if Cavendish didn’t have to find a rhyme word for every second line.

I recall previous productions of It’s Snowing on Saltspring being funnier. This version seems sweeter and more sentimental. Its tone is set early by Rinaldi’s long-suffering but optimistic Sarah (“I’ve always believed in the possibility–of everything”) and Wirkkunen’s life-embracing reverend (“Gratitude and grace, that’s what it’s all about”).

McNee is a terrific comic actor with a manic streak, but except for a very funny scene where he changes into his pyjamas while singing “You Sexy Thing,” even he seems relatively composed here.\

The biggest surprise is how warm and fuzzy Bernice Snarpley has become in this version. Played by Cavendish herself in some previous productions, Bernice has always been butch, brash, and larger than life. Zeilinger’s Bernice has one great sight gag that involves her simply sitting on the couch. Otherwise, she’s sweetly melancholic and teary. Some laughs are lost but maybe she’s a little more human.

Deborah Williams takes comic honours, lighting up the stage with her joy in Martha’s middle-aged eroticism and her energy as Mrs. Claus getting slacker Santa off his ass. Assistant Stage Manager Ronaye Haynes operates audience favourites Karma the dog and Rudolph the reindeer, both large puppets that we see outside the back window of the set. Karma gets some of the show’s biggest laughs, leaping and barking at anyone who comes by the Bannister cabin.

Merry woof woof.

Jerry Wasserman