Monday, August 9, 2010

Biz Books and "Cariboo Magi"

After Christmas last year, my parents and I drove up to British Columbia and spent a couple of days in Vancouver. While strolling around the historic Gastown district, we stumbled upon Biz Books (which, I now see, is closing in less than a week and will become online-only! madness!), a bookstore specializing in theater and film publications. They had a huge selection of scripts, including one whole wall of Canadian plays.

I was suddenly ashamed of my lack of knowledge of dramatic literature by our northern neighbors. The only Canadian play I could recall reading or seeing was Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet by Anne-Marie MacDonald (and, oddly, Biz Books didn't have any of MacDonald's work for sale). So I asked the saleslady, "Who are some Canadian playwrights who people in the States don't know about--but deserve to be better known?"

The saleslady presented me with a host of suggestions and I ended up buying two books--and, what with one thing and another, only just now have gotten around to reading the first of them. This is the play Cariboo Magi, by Lucia Frangione. I bought it because it was by a female playwright and dealt with Canadian history--it's about an oddball theater troupe that travels to inland BC at Christmas 1870 to perform for an audience of gold miners. So it's also a fable about the power of theater to bring misfits together and heal wounded souls--a bit of a cliche, but one that I have a soft spot for.

Lucia Frangione is an actress as well as a playwright, and wrote herself a starring role in Cariboo Magi: Madame Fanny Dubeau, described thusly in the list of Dramatis Personae:
Fanny is allegedly from Paris, France; she was mysteriously widowed in San Francisco and started her own reputable saloon in Old Town, San Diego, with "terpsichorean artiste" dancing girls and a small repertory theater company. Since Horton opened his hotel in New Town, her business has suffered greatly and she's being forced to close it down. Her elegant veneer thinly hides a cunning, avaricious businesswoman. She's been twenty-six for at least five years.
What fun! I mean, if you're going to write a role for yourself, better make it enjoyable to play. (When reading Cariboo Magi, I pictured Fanny as looking like Jeanne Moreau.) But the other three characters of Cariboo Magi are also vividly drawn. There's Joe Mackey, a mixed-race Canadian miner and lovelorn poet; Reverend William Teller, an alcoholic, grandly defunct minister; and Marta Reddy, a hot-tempered German girl who played juvenile roles in Fanny's theater company until she got knocked up.

As long as we're talking about plays in which theater redeems a group of social outcasts on the wild fringes of the British Empire, I would not rate Cariboo Magi as highly as Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good. (For one thing, it's less complex.) But I believe it would be entertaining to see, and a worthy and unusual choice for a theater's "Christmas slot." The climax of the play, in which the characters present a show that mixes up the Nativity Story, Hamlet, A Christmas Carol, and The Last of the Mohicans, is funny and sweet. Just enough holiday cheer, without being cloyingly Christmassy. And although the play is set in Canada (well, the first act takes place in San Diego) and there are some references to things like British Columbia's desire to join the new Dominion of Canada, I think a production of Cariboo Magi could also be effective in the United States. Particularly in regions that were once associated with gold rushes or the "frontier": California, Alaska, the West in general. There aren't really a lot of plays that focus on this period of American/Canadian history, are there?

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