Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story
May 1 to 19, 2012
Martha Cohen Theatre
Tune in the CBC’s Eyeopener for my live review Monday, May 7th at 8:20
Well, it finally happened. I knew it would at some point. Frankly I was hoping for it. After a year and a bit of formally reviewing plays in Calgary, I finally gave my first standing ovation. The fact that it was for a Canadian play, about a Canadian legend in a Canadian sport, just made it all the sweeter. Playing with Fire: The Theo Fleury Story was one of those rare nights in the theatre where the acting is as wonderful as the writing which is as wonderful as the direction which is equally matched by the set design. And I stood and clapped heartily for each and every one of those elements.
The play is written by Calgary’s own Kirstie McLellan Day who also authored the best-selling book, Playing With Fire, that chronicled ex National Hockey League player Theo Fleury’s life. Initially she had no interest turning Theo’s memoirs into play, but one year later she found herself in New York watching Carrie Fisher’s one woman tell-all show on Broadway and that’s when it hit her. Theo’s story could absolutely work in a theatre format and people would absolutely be open to seeing his story played out in this manner. So she set about writing her first play ever.
Like the book, Day’s play tells the story of Theo Fleury’s life from when he was a little boy and first strapped on skates, to his early successes in minor hockey, to his sexual abuse at the hands of his coach, to winning the Stanley Cup and representing Canada at the Olympics, to his struggles with addiction and depression that eventually forced him to leave hockey altogether, to his recovery and public admission of the abuse he suffered, right up to what Theo’s life looks like today. I call it Day’s play, but the truth is that when she brought the initial script to the folks at Alberta Theatre Projects, it was a bit of a mess. Seems that turning a thick book into a two act play was a lot harder than she had realized. So ATP Artistic Director Vanessa Porteous and Director Ron James agreed to work with Day to fine tune the play. Two years later and many rewrites and workshops undertaken, the finished script was delivered.
What a script it is. The play starts out with Theo (Shaun Smyth) telling the audience that he knows they are all there to see a famous hockey legend behaving very, very badly. No doubt this show gives us plenty of bad behavior to gawk at, but what makes the writing so compelling are the stories and motivations behind all the wild–boy antics. Delivered in a monologue format, Theo tells his story to the audience as he recounts, and at times relives the various stages of his life. Sometimes sad, sometimes triumphant often funny and occasionally upsetting, the writing gives us an unflinchingly honest look at Theo Fleury as a brutally flawed, aggressive and angry character. Underneath all the bluster however we also get to see a man who is tragically broken and in desperate need of healthy love. With this vulnerability exposed, no matter how badly he behaves, Theo’s character elicits empathy and hope for redemption from the audience.
If the writing takes credit for a great story told, then equal credit must go to Shaun Smyth for taking that story and brilliantly bringing it to life. Smyth doesn’t so much play Fleury as he becomes him. Not content to rely on mere imitation (although he has Theo down to an art) Smyth’s gift of character penetration allows him to bring more to Theo’s personality then the story alone dramatizes. Whether recounting Theo’s hockey glory, his confusion when the abuse started, his out of control addictions or his near suicide, Smyth hits the emotional notes perfectly, never overplaying the strings or relying on shock to take the place of smart acting. Which doesn’t even cover how funny he is. Smyth’s portrayal of Theo imitating and occasionally mocking everyone from Don Cherry to team owners to the players he fought make for some of the biggest laughs I’ve had in the theatre in a long time.
And did I mention he does it all on skates? If Smyth is the superbly mesmerizing star of the show, then the set should get a close second billing. Turning a stage into a hockey arena is no simple feat, but Director Ron Jenkins said he knew he wanted to set the play on a rink, but not a fake rink where the Theo would have to skate around on roller blades. Jenkins wanted to get the story right and so he demanded that the ice be real and that Smyth wear real skates. While genuine ice may have been pushing it, the synthetic ice that covered the stage and allowed Smyth to lace up and skate for the duration of the entire production worked beautifully and made it possible for Jenkins to strongly direct an immeasurable dose of believability into the story. It made the experience of watching truly thrilling.
The rest of David Fraser’s set was just as believable. From the boards with corporate logos (ATP sponsors – cute!) to the digital scoreboard suspended over the stage to the various jerseys and hockey equipment worn by Smyth, everything looked authentic and can be credited for taking this production to a higher plane. Behind the stage was a long horizontal video screen that showed footage of the Canadian flag as we all stood to sing the national anthem at the start of the show to old hockey footage and other illustrations of the narrative throughout the play. Kudos to Andy Thompson and Corwin Ferguson for their measured use of video projections that added to rather than competed with or overpowered the live action on stage. Fraser might want to take better note of their approach as I found his lighting a little heavy-handed at times. Dramatic shifts from light to dark to signal mood shifts in the play were unnecessary and broke the spell just a little, reminding us that this play was being “directed” rather than simply happening.
So, one teeny-weeny criticism aside, I am unabashedly glowy about this show. But what about if you don’t like or don’t follow hockey? Well, I’m not exactly a hockey aficionado nor was I even living in Calgary when Fleury was playing for the Flames, so I have no great loyalty to the sport or the story. Sure there is LOTS of hockey talk – games played, players fought, coaches admired, owners trading – but these details are just tentacles that spread out from the real story of the play. Playing With Fire is a story about an innocent talented kid, who makes it big, loses it all and works hard to get some of it back again. A kid that was both a victim and a perpetrator of his own tragedy, who overcomes his demons and lives to tell us about the journey. You can add hockey onto the plot all you want, this is a tale that everyone can empathize with and find inspiration from. But, if you do own a Calgary Flames jersey – I suggest you wear it to the show…..it was a big wardrobe choice for the audience and I strangely found the sea of red very moving. Maybe I’m more of a hockey fan than I realized.
For the guys – Seriously, you need to ask? You’ll love every minute of it. And if you are worried that the abuse parts are too much to handle – let me assure you it is discussed with class and intelligence. SEE IT
For the girls – There were LOTS of female hockey fans in the audience – but regardless if you like hockey or not, this is a fabulous character story that will have you rooting for Theo despite his many flaws. SEE IT
For the occasional audience – Foul language, some uncomfortable story elements and a two act monologue may make you wary. You shouldn’t be. This is great theatre that will make you laugh and cry and tell you a great story. SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – This show is a fourple threat (I just made that word up). The writing, the acting, the directing and the set will rival some of the best theatre you’ve seen. SEE IT