At the Arts Club Granville Island Stage until May 25
Posted on May 11, 2013
Mark Leiren-Young is ballsy, I’ll give him that. Not until opening night of Never Shoot a Stampede Queen did I understand his shameless self-promotion – facebooking for weeks, posting audience and critical response every day from Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops where the show premiered: “Standing O” and “Sold out houses”. “Funnier than the book”, he promised.
But on opening night in Vancouver, the penny dropped for me. This is a Canadian Actors Equity Co-op production renting the Arts Club theatre. Oh. No sponsors. No grants. Just TJ Dawe (director/dramaturge) and Leiren-Young’s money on the line. Oh. Now that’s either gutsy or crazy. I don’t know what kind of houses these two need to break even – but they’ve got to be good. And that means social media bigtime and in your face.
It makes sense that this show did well in Kamloops: fresh-out-of-college Vancouver kid (Leiren-Young himself) takes a job as a reporter in Williams Lake and learns a thing or two about small towns. And a lot about himself. Folks in Kamloops must get that all the time; city folk looking down their noses at country folk – not that Kamloops is country anymore but it used to be and the attitude probably still exists.
And I’ll bet Williams Lake would love it. Although Leiren-Young sets his memoir back in 1985 in Williams Lake (population 13,000 back then), that town may still love to tear strips off a cub reporter who falls for every prank in the book – including a description of a new and really, really silly bear trap. An arrow shoved up the bear’s butt? Really? Oh, yeah, Leiren-Young’s degree from U Vic was in Fine Arts not animal behavior.
Solo performer Zachary Stevenson throws himself into Never Shoot a Stampede Queen with all the guts and gusto of a cowboy breaking a horse. And the analogy is apt. Based on his Leacock medal-winning book of the same name, it’s a pretty rough ride – really a series of anecdotes from Leiren-Young’s early years as a wet behind the ears reporter for the Williams Lake Tribune. Stevenson, who was fabulous in Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story last August on the Stanley Stage, is a fresh-faced kid with a huge grin and he can really pull off the wide-eyed naïf that was Leiren-Young as a 22-year-old. He plays all the roles from Kate, “the green-eyed pixie” who was the newspaper’s photographer to the girl in the 24-hour convenience store who chases the thief down the street to give him back his knife. You’d swear Stevenson has a big beer gut (he doesn’t) when he’s Stan, the publisher and you can almost see the yellow stripe down the pant leg when he’s playing Staff Sergeant Johnson, “the nicest guy in town.” There’s a lot of bright-eyed-bushy-tailed innocence in this show and Stevenson does it well.
Conflict? Not much. Dramatic tension? Some, when it comes to ‘shall I stay or shall I go’ time. It’s very Stephen Leacock and it’s no wonder the novel won the award named for the great Canadian humourist.
Ross Nichol’s set is raked and pretty simple: piles of newspapers bundled up. Lighting was a bit off on opening night: Stevenson found himself searching for his light on occasion. But these are technical things that get worked out.
This Williams Lake experience contributed to making what Leiren-Young is today: a successful novelist, playwright and, recently, theatre critic. Stampede Queen and his soon to be released sequel/prequel Magic Secrets Revealed have been optioned for film and he is currently writing the screenplays for both.
You might want to check the schedule because some of the performances of Stampede Queen will have ‘tweet seats’ where those with electronic gadgetry will be encouraged to tweet their friends during the show. Good grief.