‘Under Wraps’ uncovered at LSPU Hall tonight

Tara Bradbury
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The good thing about having a gigantic white sheet as a theatre backdrop is it can become anything. Make it move, and it can represent anything from wind to fire to a thought process; add light behind it and it can instantly change from a nightclub to an outdoor scene to the interior of a store.

The tricky part is the timing — having invisible actors precisely choreographed to literally shape the set at very specific moments  without seeing the scene being played out onstage.

It’s complicated, it’s moving and it’s just plain beautiful to watch — it’s Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s remount of its breakout play, “Under Wraps,” being presented at the LSPU Hall from tonight until May 19.

Artistic Fraud was founded by Robert Chafe and Jillian Keiley in 1995, and performed its original production, the comedy “In Your Dreams, Freud.” A year later, the theatre company produced the eight-minute “The Cheat,” with a cast of close to 100 performers, for the Sound Symposium.

“Under Wraps” was first put on in 1997. Written by Chafe and originally directed by Keiley, with a musical score by Petrina Bromley, the play features two actors performing on top of a 40-foot by 60-foot white parachute cloth, with 18 actors under it, positioning themselves and using minimal props to form the set. In a scene set in a furniture store, the actors become the beds, tables and lamp; in a nightclub scene, they use multicoloured LED lights attached to their fingers to make a lightshow.

“Under Wraps” did three sold-out runs in St. John’s when it was first produced, and toured to Halifax, Calgary, Banff and Vancouver.

The story is one of unrequited love between two men; a very personal show for Chafe, who wrote it. At the time it was first mounted, he said, it was seen as a landmark production. Though much has changed in the country for gays and lesbians since 1997, he and Keiley say the play is still relevant because of its intimate nature.

“As we took it on tour, people were saying, ‘This is really brave, to have this 20-person show, a gay love story from Newfoundland,’” Chafe said. “We sat down four or five years ago and thought, maybe it’s not relevant anymore, but then you get these stories like Jamie Hubley (a teenager from Ottawa who suffered from homophobic bullying), and they keep happening.

“In the process of going back and looking at the show and digging into it again and revisiting a personal experience, it forced me to dig into the process of coming out and what that really means — what it meant for me and what it could mean to other people. I think that it’s a deeply personal experience, and even though society has gotten much more accepting on a personal level, it’s not what’s really going on.”

It’s an internal process, Chafe said, and for a lot of people, it’s not about external factors. The play explores that.

“It’s a brave new world, but it’s still hard for people to come to terms with who they are, no matter what, whether it’s their sexuality or what they want to be or do or achieve in their life,” Keiley added. “When I went to school at St. Kevin’s in Goulds, there was one person there out of the thousand kids from kindergarten to Grade 12 whom everybody said was gay, and now there’ a gay-straight alliance in St. Kevin’s, which I find pretty profound. I think the next step is going to be that we don’t even need a gay-straight alliance — it just is. I think we’re progressing pretty quickly and wonderfully.”

The themes sound quite heavy, Chafe admitted with a chuckle, but stressed the play is not entirely serious — it’s witty and funny and and whimsical.

“The main goal of the show, from the inception of it and that we’ve tried to foster and preserve throughout the redevelopment process, is to create something that’s really spectacular looking, and that was really fun and unique. All of the other depth comes in there and plays, but first and foremost, the show is intended to be a laugh.”

There’s plenty of humour in the main actors’ lines, and especially from the chorus, underneath the sheet. While creating the physical set, the actors (14 of them under the sheet this time around) are singing, making sound effects, and speaking as the protagonist’s conscious.

“What do you think?” his love interest, a furniture store employee, asks, gesturing to a queen-size bed.

“I think it’s just great,” the protagonist replies, looking into his eyes excitedly and referring to their just-made plans to meet for coffee.

“He’s talking about the bed,” the chorus whispers, from underneath the sheet.

Those 14 actors are hard working, and get no breaks throughout the show. Underneath the cloth is a grid, and each of them has a program chart, letting them know exactly where to be at exactly which line in the play. If they’re supposed to be at A13 forming a chair at a particular point, they have to be there precisely on time, since one of the visible actors is scheduled to come and sit there.

“There are a couple of times in the performance when the chairs form around the actors, so they literally sit down and trust that the chair’s going to be behind them,” Chafe said. He played the main character in the original production, but is part of the chorus this time around, and reckons it’s karma: after all that time sitting on others, he’s now the one getting

sat on.

“I always knew how hard it was, but now I truly get a picture of how hard it is and how tremendously focused and patient and dedicated you have to be of this process, and how trusting you have to be, because it’s a crazy idea to be under a sheet and to be playing someone’s chair,” he said.

“It gives (the show) this kind of communal storytelling feel, which we always go for in our work,” he said. “This show is a real great example of when it works, it’s really beautiful.”

Keiley gave up her role as creative director with Artistic Fraud to take up a job in Ottawa as director of English theatre with the National Arts Centre last August, and this production of “Under Wraps,” though organized long before she took the position, is an NAC event.

It’s part of her mandate in the role at the centre, she explained. The NAC is collaborating on projects rather than holding premieres at the centre, investing in projects that are happening on the ground, in communities across Canada.

“There are a lot of companies across the country, like Artistic Fraud, that are doing really interesting work,” she explained.

“What we’re trying to do is invest in these projects so these premieres are stronger, and eventually we hope to cull the projects that we invest in and bring them, so we have a full season of strong Canadian work.”

“Under Wraps” is directed by Keiley. It stars Ron Klappholz and Greg Gale, along with a chorus consisting of Chafe, Bromley, Alison Woolridge, Marie Jones, Vicki Harnett, Justin Nurse, Jeremy Wells, Mark Power, Brad Bonnell, Willow Kean, Anna Stassis, Courtney Brown, Michael Power, Robert Chafe, Mark White and Wade Tarling.

Tickets for “Under Wraps,” which runs 90 minutes plus intermission, are $35 general admission and $25 for students and seniors. They’re available at the LSPU Hall box office, by calling 753-4531 or online at www.rca.nf.ca.



Twitter: tara_bradbury


Organizations: National Arts Centre, English theatre

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Ottawa, Halifax Calgary Banff Vancouver Goulds Canada

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