The Soul Collector
Directed, written and scored by Jonathan Christenson
Design by Bretta Gerecke
A Catalyst Theatre production,
ATB Financial ArtsBarns, to May 12, 2013
matinees Saturday and Sunday, May 11 and 12.

Tickets $17 to $42, online at Tix on the Square

Review by Graham Hicks, blog

For Jonathan Christenson fans, there’s an irresistible pull every time the brilliant writer, composer and director teams up with designer Bretta Gerecke for another Catalyst Theatre world premiere.

The Soul Collector, at the ATB Financial Arts Barns through May 12, 2013, is truly a world premiere, as are all Christenson and Gerecke (CG for short) Catalyst productions. Catalyst has rock-band-like legions of international fans. Its shows tour for years, across North America, Europe and Australia. As far as made-in-Edmonton cultural exports go, Catalyst is up there with Tommy Banks, kd lang and Corb Lund.

The pull, the must-attend factor, is the unique style of any C/G production. For want of a better term, I like to call them a subtle form of rock opera. The songs will be a synthesis of musical theatre and orchestral rock, the lyrics acting as narration or commentary. The characters live in surreal, dark, emotional worlds of caricature and despair, where only art and doomed love offer respite. And yet all CG shows end with a weird sense of hope, with their audiences contradictorily glowing in the aftermath of prolonged exposure to the Catalyst aesthetic.

Catalyst productions are closer to rock opera (think The Who’s Tommy, or Pink Floyd’s The Wall) than theatre. There’s no tokenism in designer Gerecke sharing the marquee with Christenson. The audience enters into an all-encompassing Catalyst world of visual, audio and choreographic elements.

The moment the house lights darken, you are in its Gothic-esque, Brothers Grimm world – with long, sinewy, skeletal design motifs, shadow upon shadow, costumes that start with Victorian/Edwardian street flair (think Christmas Carol or Oliver) then explode into  expressions of Gerecke's art, voices digitally altered for dramatic effect, with sounds and soundscapes just as important, if not more so, than the words.

In a Catalyst world, characters rarely walk. All is dance, be it transfiguration of the stage into an ensemble dance scene, or just characters slip-sliding-gliding across that stage. In a Catalyst world, all has rhythm.  If anything defines an Edmonton “school” of theatre, it would be these deep embracing rhythms.  The two giants of this school, Christenson and Citadel Theatre artistic director Bob Baker, bring choreography to all movement.

Those are the universal elements of any Catalyst GC production. Within each show, individual composition blossoms. Pardon the music analogy, but each GC show is like a new album from a long-established, creative band, or a new book from a popular author. 

In contrast to  recent Catalyst shows, The Soul Collector is not an adaptation of a famous book or historic character, as were the last three shows - Hunchback (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in 2011,  Nevermore (inspired by writer Edgar Allan Poe) in 2008 or Frankenstein in 2007. The Soul Collector is fiction unto itself, and its dramatic centre is close to home.

Christenson and Gerecke live in the city that most readers of this review share. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada has long, cold, often hostile winters, being the most northerly metropolis in all the Americas. Soul Collector opens with a reflection on its town of Cold Comfort, where, ironically, migrants from far more hospitable climates have left behind wretched pasts to find satisfaction and accomplishment in a frozen paradise.

Except … the most wounded souls have a bad habit, in the middle of the worst howling blizzards, of disappearing for good. The Soul Collector, whose dwelling is only glimpsed during those storms, throws open her doors and promises respite from the internal and external pain, only you’ll never come back again ….

The other new twist, in this show is the spatial relationship of audience to actors. The “stage” runs down the middle of the ultra-flexible Westbury Theatre space, with the audience banked six or seven rows high on either side. At one end rises as a small tobogganing hill, its meaning only revealed in the show’s final scenes. The other has its final destination at the doors of the Soul Collector, dramatically flung open as she welcomes another Cold Comfort-ian into her chilly embrace. The reason for the hill comes with the denouement.

The story is of the altruistic Memory McQuaid (Karyn Mott), suffering from mysterious mental torment, who is taken Scrooge-like by equally mysterious but kind guides Mortimer the blind mortician (Clinton Carew) and her undefined rescuer Gideon Glumb, played by Benjamin Wardle. Mortimer and Gideon guide Memory as invisible witnesses to a series of Cold Comfort citizens’ vignettes - Agnieska Bjarnesen and Thorvold Jespersen, Skye and Anemone, Popcorn Pete – ending with The Soul Collector’s embrace.
All is mysterious, eerie, touching, beautiful, macabre, dance, song, sound, sometimes departing from, but never losing sight of, the plot line.

There is, for instance, one of the most lovely pas de deux ever executed on an Edmonton stage, between Mott and Wardle. The room is suspended in the five or six beautiful moments of the dance, until returning to plot. 

Which raises another sterling aspect of any Catalyst show.  Christenson has a particular genius for finding triple-threat (acting, singing, and dancing) actors, mostly from Edmonton. Either he elevates them to his high standard, or they are simply undiscovered. It’s a tad perturbing that in such a theatre town as this, so much talent must wait for discovery through Catalyst. Who knew of the gorgeous voice and acting talent within Karyn Mott, of Wardle’s presence and dancing ability?

I hope I have intrigued you. The Soul Collector is a most intriguing show.