Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland has never been a theatre company to do things on a small scale. “Big, edgy theatre” is how it bills itself, and many of its original pieces have earned the word “iconic” — “Oil and Water,” for instance, which was seen by 28,000 people across the country this past spring alone.
On Monday, Artistic Fraud announced what may be one of its biggest projects yet, in celebration of its 20th anniversary.
“We wanted to do something that would not only be a celebration of our past, but also kind of launch into our future, something big and of consequence,” said playwright Robert Chafe, who is also the theatre company’s artistic director.
Directed by Jillian Keiley with a score by Patrick Boyle, Artistic Fraud will present a stage version of Wayne Johnston’s novel, “The Colony of Unrequited Dreams,” in a short run in St. John’s in February. Adapted for the stage by Chafe, the production has been in the works for a number of years.
“The Colony of Unrequited Dreams,” published in 1998, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for English Fiction that year. It’s a fictionalized telling of the story of Joseph R. Smallwood, tracking the first half of his life, intertwining it with the life of (fictional) caustic newspaper columnist Sheilagh Fielding.
Chafe says the theatre company searched the country auditioning actors to fill the lead roles, ultimately hoping they’d find a suitable Smallwood in Newfoundland and Labrador. In the end, they did: actor Colin Furlong of Mount Pearl will don the black-framed glasses and bow tie of the province’s first premier. Furlong’s previous projects include “Tempting Providence,” “Afterimage,” “Fear of Flight” and CBC-TV’s “Republic of Doyle.”
“It’s beyond a simple impersonation of the man,” Chafe says of the role of Smallwood.
“What strikes me about the book that Wayne wrote versus other versions of Joey Smallwood is, although there’s a lot of artistic licence taken there, Wayne really digs into a version of what made Smallwood tick, so fictional or not, it’s a deeply personal look inside this guy’s head.
Fielding will be played by Toronto-based actor Astrid Van Wieren, whose previous work includes a stint on Broadway and on tour in “Mamma Mia.”
She’s currently starring in an English musical version of “La Belle Soeur” in Montreal.
Chafe recognizes the pressures that come with writing and mounting a production such as this, with content — like Smallwood himself — that people will either love or hate.
“As a writer and a creator of theatre, you think of what people are coming in with and how do you use that as an asset as opposed to ignoring it,” he said.
“Something I realized over the last few years of working on this is there are people who love Joey and there are still people who think he sold the country out; that’s the depth and breadth of the feelings of our lead character that people are bringing into the room. I think Wayne did a remarkable job in the novel of looking at all sides of Joey in a way that’s deeply satisfying to any reader, regardless of where they fall on that political spectrum. The challenge came to us to do the same, and we’re super excited.”
“The Colony of Unrequited Dreams” will run at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre Feb. 18- 21.
Tickets are on sale now at the box office, online at www.artsandculturecentre.com and by calling 729-3900, with a limited time special offer: tickets for the Feb. 19 performance can be purchased for the reduced price of $20 with promo code AF20YEARS.