Friday, March 18, 2011

tnb's hat trick

hat trick –noun Ice Hockey.  three goals or points scored by one player in one game.

If a theatre season can be seen as a single game, Theatre New Brunswick has scored a hat trick. (I promise that will be the last sports metaphor I attempt in this post)

They started the season back in September - and hot on the heels of provincial election - with Alistair Beaton's hilarious and biting political satire Feelgood.  (this also brought one of my favourite TNB ads).  They followed this up in December with Treasure Island which played out with every bit of adventure generations of kid readers have imagined.

The world premiere of David Adams Richards’ Hockey Dreams, the final show of the 2010-2011 season, was also perhaps the most ambitious.  It starts with a story about Canada's most-beloved sport by one of our most-beloved authours.  Then there's the cast that save for one adult is under the age of 18 and largely plucked from towns across New Brunswick.  And then there is the little matter of creating a skatable ice rink onstage. 

But if anyone could make this work, it's the current team at Theatre New Brunswick led by Artisic Producer Caleb Marshall (who also directed and adapted Hockey Dreams.)   Almost five years ago I had the chance to work with Caleb on another David Adams Richards adaptation.  Caleb's greatest gift is his love of story-telling; especially if it's a New Brunswick story.  This is complemented by an ability to maintain a fully-realized vision while also allowing his creative team, cast and crew the space to find their place in that world  His immense passion and energy attract people with similar passion and inspires everyone to be better and push further.

Because of this, TNB has now become a stable of highly creative home-grown talent both behind the scenes and onstage (and with TNB's theatre school, we're blessed with a whole new generation of talent.)   A lot of the key people have grown up together and have transformed their lifelong friendships into vibrant creative collaborations.   That kind of camaraderie helps give a show like Hockey Dreams added layers.   Mike Doherty's sparsely beautiful score seems to come straight from the heart of rural New Brunswick.   John Leroux worked with Caleb to employ projections of numerous paintings from New Brunswick artists which form a rich backdrop for the story.   And Patrick Clark's production design took us to shingle-covered homes, bedrooms replete with bunk beds and plaid blankets, cozy living rooms, desolate highways and small town rinks - the play is set in the early '60s but there's a timelessness about it. By the time the kids glided out on the "ice" for the first time, we'd been truly transported back to our own childhoods.
TNB's Artistic Producer Caleb Marshall with his Hockey Dreams assistant director Elwood Hannington.
While all the production elements merged together beautifully, the success of the show rests squarely on the shoulders of its young cast.  The kids of Hockey Dreams manage to create an authentic kid-dom that's hilarious, energetic and heartfelt without ever being hammy or cloying.  It's hard to single out any one performance - they're all pitch-perfect, funny and heart-breaking - but 10 year-old Jacob Grant Leblanc's turn as fast-talking, big-dreaming Stafford Foley is a tour de force.  Jacob blows through pages of dialogue and physical business with the kind of spontaneity and truthfulness that many more seasoned actors struggle to achieve.   (That's also him showing off his hockey skills in the video above.)

Jacob Grant Leblanc and his mom Ann celebrate opening night.  (the kid's already got style, right?) Ann even got into the act by knitting a key piece of Jacob's wardrobe.

Stafford lives for hockey, the Detroit Red Wings and Gordie Howe. But unlike Jacob, who is actually captain of the Fredericton DQ Stars, Stafford's hockey dreams far outsize his stature and ability. Hockey Dreams revolves around that bittersweet moment in childhood when kid dreams come up against life's reality and nothing is ever quite the same.  This is a script that could hold it's own against any classic coming-of-age story.

Fredericton audiences are notoriously reserved and when the cast took their bows Thursday night, the roar of the audience was unlike anything I've heard before.  It was more akin to, well, a hockey arena.

If hockey is our national sport, Hockey Dreams should be our national play. The entire production is a celebration of Canadiana and even more specifically of New Brunswick.  Whether you ever strapped on skates or not, it's a hilarious and heartfelt story for anyone who ever had a dream.

Hockey Dreams runs Thursday, March 17 – Saturday, March 19 at 8pm and Sunday, March 20 at 2pm at the Fredericton Playhouse and will tour to the Imperial Theatre in Saint John on March 24th, and to the Capitol Theatre in Moncton on March 25th.

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