“Storm Warning” brings magic to Muskoka
New ACT opened its second season last week, bringing a little theatrical magic back to Bala
THE MUSKOKAN - When John Holden brought repertory theatre to Canada in 1934, there was no theatre building in Bala.
His company of professional actors – the Actors’ Colony Theatre – performed in community halls and various other venues, using the magic of their talent to transform the spaces into whatever the play needed them to be.
That same magic has returned to Bala with the New Actors’ Colony Theatre. There’s still no theatre building here, but that isn’t stopping a dedicated group of theatre professionals from sprinkling a little magic in the village.
New ACT, which was launched in 2011, opened its second season last week with a performance of Norm Foster’s Storm Warning. And in the process, the Bala curling club was transformed.
The play features Peter Shipston as Jack and Melissa Renshaw as Emma. Written by incredibly prolific Canadian playwright Norm Foster (he’s been Canada’s most produced playwright for the past 20 years), the story takes place at a remote Muskoka resort in 1953, where Jack and Emma have both retreated from life to lick their wounds for awhile.
As the two talk and clash – he’s a quiet an introvert, she’s brash and talkative – they gradually reveal more and more about themselves, peeling away layers of life and its scars.
It sounds heavy-handed, but it isn’t. Foster is known primarily as a comedic writer, and while there’s plenty of intensity and drama, the humour is never far from view.
With very little action on stage, the success or failure of this show depends entirely on the performance skills of the actors. This is where New ACT – like Holden’s company before it – excels. Director and company co-founder Eva Moore (like Annette Procunier, the company’s other co-founder) has decades of experience as a theatre professional, and has cast her show well.
Renshaw and Shipston are entirely convincing in their roles, by turns revealing and concealing their characters’ true stories and slowly unveiling their secrets. Renshaw is bold and bright on stage, driving the story for the most part and teasing bits of information out of Jack. But Renshaw also knows how to hold back: it would be very easy to make Emma into a caricature of the brassy broad, overwhelming every scene with her vivacity. Under Moore’s direction, Renshaw resists this and remains believable.
Shipston – who Muskoka audiences saw last year in The Foursome and Same Time Next Year – brings a quiet intensity that the role of Jack requires. Using a combination of politeness and occasional prickliness as a shield, Jack deflects Emma’s attempts to know him more. When he finally drops the shield and reveals his past in a powerful and moving monologue, Shipston lets loose with an impressive intensity that reaches out and grabs the audience by the throat. It’s an unforgettable piece of theatre that will have audiences on the edge of their seats all summer long.
And that is the magic of New ACT, the same magic that Holden’s company brought to bear 80 years ago.
When Holden’s company was founded, the only professional theatre small towns like Bala saw were travelling shows that landed for a night or two and were gone. Holden knew if the show was good enough, audiences could be enticed to come and see a new show every week or two. In his first year, they sold 1,250 tickets; by the time the war forced the company to fold eight years later, they were selling 25,000 tickets a year.
New ACT is just beginning down that path. This season features three plays – Last of the Red Hot Lovers and Munschapalooza both opened this week – along with several special events.
The three shows will be alternating until the end of August, bringing a little theatrical magic back to Bala and transforming a mundane venue into something spectacular again and again.