Veteran director returns to Guild for third performance

All is not well in the state of Rolly and Stevie. The two small-time criminals, father and son, had a pretty simple job to do, and they botched it.

All is not well in the state of Rolly and Stevie.

The two small-time criminals, father and son, had a pretty simple job to do, and they botched it.

At a motel hideout the pair discuss their predicament.

The crime boss who hired them is not going to be pleased. Worse, as the consequences of their blunder keep unfolding in a deepening spiral of comedic fear and impending violence, they are perpetually harassed by the drunken motel manager demanding his $40 rent payment.

This storyline is but a strand from the brain of George F. Walker, the Canadian playwright who penned Criminal Genius, a play that opens at the Guild Hall in Whitehorse next week.

“This plot is a crime gone wrong,” said Libby Mason, a director and drama instructor from Salt Spring Island, BC, who is visiting Whitehorse for her third Guild Society production.

“Two highly incompetent criminals make one mistake, or change, in a plan and that leads to more mistakes and more mistakes until it gets more and more hectic,” Mason said Thursday.

“Along the way, they pick up three other characters.

“There are more and more people coming in to this motel room, trying to put right an earlier mistake made in an attempted crime.”

In 1997, Walker wrote six one-act plays, all parts of his Suburban Motel Series that takes place in the same seedy motel that could be found anywhere in urban North America.

“I find him absolutely remarkable and unique, really, as a Canadian playwright, in that he writes about very serious things and quite dark things, but with this incredible kind of humour,” said Mason.

“I like that combination of genres that he works with.

“It kind of draws from film noir, but the genre theme that I’ve been drawing from is Pulp Fiction, the (director Quentin) Tarantino movie.

“It’s hard to place (Walker) in a genre, because if you look at his other writing … he’s very interested in existing genre, knowing about them and then subverting them.”

Mason directed The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams, in 2002 and Wit, by Margaret Edson, in 2005, both at the Guild.

During Wit, Mason directed local actors Mary Sloan, Mairi Macrae and Joe Zucchiatti.

After Wit’s success last September, the actors joined with another performer, Mike Curtis, to form Open Door Productions.

“We had agreed when I was here last year that we would love to do a George F. Walker play because we’re all such big George F. Walker fans,” said Mason.

“But it was really those guys who formed a company and invited me up.”

Open Door Productions received a $10,000 Arts Fund grant from the Yukon government to hire Mason, rent space at the Guild Hall and produce Criminal Genius.

The founding members of the production company — all volunteers — first became acquainted with the play during a Nakai Theatre workshop seven years ago, in fall of 1999.

“There were five or six of us, and we used that play to learn some basic acting skills,” said Macrae, who has been assisting with production.

“We had such a riot. It’s such a funny play.

“Afterwards, we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to mount that play.’”

The actors got the Guild on board earlier this year. Rehearsals began August 10.

Zucchiatti plays Stevie, the browbeaten son of Rolly, who is played by Curtis.

Sloan plays Shirley, the tough-talking intermediary between the criminal duo and the unseen crime boss who is pulling the strings.

“It may be the case that you would technically call these people amateurs, but I find their dedication and their skill of a remarkably high quality,” said Mason.

“In my other work, I work with professional actors and with training actors and with community actors.

“These guys are among the best.

“That’s the remarkable thing about this community: You have a very, very high quality of community theatre here.”

Jim Kemshead plays Phillie, the crass manager who inserts himself in this play as well as another Walker play, Problem Child, that opens in tandem with Criminal Genius at the Guild next week.

“The plays are short, so they work as a double bill,” said Macrae.

“We get to be with this one character the whole night, which forms a nice arc.”

Problem Child is a dark, morally wrenching play set in the same dingy motel room, but featuring a couple with a troubled past trying to regain custody of their child from the Justice department.

“It’s a dramatic comedy with something to say,” said director Mort Ransen, Mason’s partner, in a previous interview with The News.

“It takes place in the underclass of society and is about people who fall through the cracks, yet it’s also very funny.”

Thus, like Criminal Genius, Problem Child draws on the world Walker knew when he was making his living as a taxi driver in Toronto in 1972, when he noticed a sign outside the Factory Theatre soliciting new works.

He submitted one of his first manuscripts.

Walker’s dialogue “has this feel of reality,” said Mason.

“He’s not writing about people that he doesn’t know, he’s writing about people that he knows.

“That’s always the strength of good writing.”

The two plays “make very good companion pieces,” said Ransen.

“It should be a fun evening.”

Criminal Genius and Problem Child will overlap in their runs at the Guild.

Previews for Criminal Genius continue tonight at 8 p.m.

There’s a preview for Problem Child Tuesday at 8 p.m. and a preview for both shows Wednesday at 8 p.m.

The Walker extravaganza officially opens Thursday at 8 p.m. and runs Wednesday through Saturday until September 30.

Preview tickets are $5.

Tickets for regular weekday performances are $15 or $12 for students and seniors.

Tickets for Friday or Saturday performances cost $18 or $15 for students and seniors.

Pay-what-you-can night is Wednesday, September 20.

Tickets for both plays are available at the Hougen’s ticket office or at the Guild Hall in Porter Creek.

With files from Tim Querengesser.