Chris Abraham has given some thought as to why wedding receptions sometimes go off the rails, careening from loving harmony into discord and chaos.
“Alcohol,” says Abraham, who’s directing Kristen Thomson’s farcical The Wedding Party, opening at the National Arts Centre Jan. 30. The play, with six actors performing 40 parts, revolves around the bride and groom’s wholly incompatible relatives, including civil wars within the families and assorted other eruptions.
But alcohol is not the sole culprit when wedding parties go awry, notes Abraham. “Families are getting together after long periods of absence, and it’s a moment in which people are open to the past and the future. It’s one of those moments where you’re taking stock of your life and you end up getting cracked open to the real stuff going on underneath your daily life. That can come out in either extremely positive and soul-opening moments, (but also) the stuff you’ve been putting under the rug can make an ugly appearance.”
His own wedding, he adds, was not a battlefield, in part because his wife was six months pregnant at the time.
Playwright Thomson – an actor who made her playwriting debut with 2001’s much-celebrated I, Claudia, about an adolescent swept up in her parents’ divorce — has always been interested in families at pivotal moments, says Abraham.
That, and characters who are born of experience, help make this show highly relatable. “A very common experience for audiences that see not only The Wedding Party but any show (Thomson) has done is — ‘He reminded me of my uncle or my grandfather or my niece.’”
When creating The Wedding Party, Thomson started by developing the characters in an improvisational collaboration with others, some of whom are in the show. The play grew over the course of a couple of years, with the characters already well-defined before Thomson began weaving them into a full story and script.
The show debuted in Toronto in 2017, produced by A Crow’s Theatre and Talk is Free Theatre and directed by Abraham. The NAC show is produced by the same two companies with largely the same cast, including Thomson.
“My role as director is the fun of creating the illusion of a giant wedding party with only six (actors),” says Abraham.
The fun is also a challenge thanks to the costume changes demanded for all those characters.
“I think the actors all lose weight doing the show because they’re literally running off the stage and doing a costume change, some of them in seven seconds, and then running back on stage.”
For a director, precision is clearly critical here, he says, just as it is in any comedy, especially when there are farcical elements. Equally important, he says – adding that this is true of any theatre – is fidelity to life.
In the case of The Wedding Party, that means the director has to help bring out the characters’ hopes and hidden fears, which are odds with each other and that create conflict. “You try to connect the audience with all the stories that are going to connect in a supernova of alcohol and chaos and then resolve themselves.”
All this means The Wedding Party is more than just entertainment, he believes. It’s a prompt for audiences to feel their own feelings, to recognize their own baggage, to have their own engagement with family and joy and love.
“Theatre, when it’s working, is a waking up to your own experience.”
The Wedding Party is in the Babs Asper Theatre Jan. 30-Feb. 9 (previews, Jan. 30 & 31; opening night, Feb. 1). For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca.