Kate Ross on the “beautiful and accessible” WWI drama MARY’S WEDDING

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Still of Kate Ross and Dexter the Horse from Mary’s Wedding Trailer shoot at Inukshuk Farm; trailer directed and filmed by Glenn Warner

There’s something about Mary…

Stephen Massicote’s exquisite World War I play Mary’s Wedding makes its Toronto debut January 31 in a new production starring Kate Ross and Fraser Elsdon. The role of Mary is familiar to Ms Ross, who portrayed her in a production of the play about 6 years ago. “My husband, Fraser, and I starred in it and produced it ourselves with a great group of people in a little barn outside of Windsor, Ontario.” Their experience with that production left an indelible impression. Over the intervening years, they frequently discussed bringing it to Toronto, wanting to share it with a larger audience in a larger city. “The play is a beautiful love story set in an impossible time, and when we did it back then, our own relationship was blossoming and still young,” she recalls. “This time around, we’ve been married for two years and have a deeper understanding of love and commitment. I think just being a few years older has us reading the words in a different way.”

Set in the Canadian prairies during the First World War, Mary’s Wedding chronicles the romance between Mary, a recent English immigrant to Canada, and Charlie, a young Canadian farmer. On the eve of her wedding to another man, Mary dreams of her past – when she and Charlie unexpectedly found one another sheltering in a barn during a thunderstorm.The two soon fell in love, and the story centres on their courtship and separation, and traverses the fields of Canada’s Western Prairies to the battlefields of France’s Moreuil Wood. “I think that Mary is fun to play because she’s out of her comfort zone, having just moved from bustling London to the Canadian Prairies, but she takes it on with curiosity and excitement,” Ms Ross explains. “Charlie shares a curiosity as well, which is why they’re so attracted to each other, but I would say his curiosity is mostly about her!”

For Ms Ross, this role is “always a pleasure” because discovering things is so interesting to play. For instance, Ms Ross refers to a scene when Mary learns to horseback ride as “such fun for us!” After their first meeting, Mary and Charlie discover numerous things about each other in their new (and, at times, funny) setting. But the fate of the young lovers rests on the events of the First World War. When the war begins, Charlie joins a Canadian cavalry regiment, inspired by the idealized vision of war in his favourite poem, Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. Needless to say, this depiction is starkly at odds with the reality that awaits him.  

Since its premiere at Alberta Theatre Projects’ playRites Festival in 2002, Mary’s Wedding has come to be revered as one of the most cherished plays in Canadian history. It continues to resonate the world over, with over 100 different productions mounted across Canada, the US, New Zealand, and the UK. The play has also been translated into French and adapted into an opera by the Pacific Opera Victoria. It is a tour-de-force for many reasons, perhaps not the least because Massicotte had no formal training or experience in playwriting when he wrote it, and has said that he wrote it as a vehicle to act in. As a result, it has no real precedent. The story spans the years from 1914 to 1920. The dialogue incorporates a remarkable combination of dream sequences, murmurings, raging, and conversations – real and imaginary – all seamlessly interwoven. A dream play, Mary’s Wedding is emphatically nonlinear, juxtaposing moments of understated tenderness between the lovers with the screams of dying soldiers in the trenches. What grabs audiences by the emotional guts is the play’s depiction of war’s psychological impact on those both on and off the battlefields.

Fraser Elsdon (Charlie) and Kate Ross (Mary) in Mary’s Wedding

The intimacy and rawness of such an interior perspective might appeal to young people who learn about World War I in high-school classrooms. Typically, students in Ontario study this war as a part of the grade 10 history curriculum. As my son drily noted upon the unit’s conclusion, he had learned about the causes leading to the war and the treaty that ended it . . . but virtually nothing about the battles, the key events, and effects and impacts of the war itself. Our students’ understanding of this “war to end all wars” involves mostly facts and dates, eliding the most meaningful human or social elements. Ms Ross recognizes this truth from her own high-school experience: “I had that same complaint in high school, and didn’t learn about the people and what was happening on the ground until much later.” While young people might not learn about “specifics in terms of battle locations leading to such and such” from watching Mary’s Wedding, the play will correct some of this gap by conveying a deep understanding of what it felt like to be in a trench. Students will be able to sympathize with soldiers, who were young men not much older than they are, and who “were frightened and missed home the way [they] might”. Moreover, “they will also learn about what the hand-to-hand combat looked like, and how the war changed people as months and years went on”.

Despite the distance of time, Ms Ross believes that ultimately, “the poetry of the play relays a reality of war in a beautiful and relatable way”. Clearly, audiences agree, as Mary’s Wedding continues to resonate with audiences a century after it is set and 16 years after it debuted. Ms Ross believes firmly that stories of this war and others that followed must be told so that subsequent generations understand the impact. Her grandmother was a nurse in World War 2, who told frequent war stories to her wide-eyed granddaughter. Many of Ms Ross’ friends had similar experiences, much like those that their parents had with their grandparents, who served in or endured World War 1. “Now as time goes on, and the generations die, we lose the people who took part in these events,” she notes with regret. “The younger generations may never meet a World War veteran. And remembering these events is hugely important to ensure a) that those we lost are honoured, and b) that these giant scale wars do not happen again.” To underscore this intent, the creators of this production have timed the run to commemorate the centenary of Armistice that ended WWI.

In conclusion, Ms Ross extends a warm invitation for all to see this “beautiful and accessible play”. On a not-so-side note, it will be a treat to see Ms Ross on a local stage performing a piece that holds a special place in her heart. An increasingly familiar presence on film and television, she has performed in Netflix/CBC’s Alias Grace, the CW’s Reign, CBS’s American Gothic, and Youtube/Facebook’s Chateau Laurier web series, to name just a few. For those who do not often go to the theatre, she deems Mary’s Wedding “a perfect intro to [this] world…. It is short, moving, simple, and playful,” she enthuses.

“I really think anyone could and will love it!”

Rapid Round with Kate Ross

  1. Who have you shared the stage with that made you starstruck?

For some reason I tend to not get too sparkly-eyed when I am working. I want to be taken seriously, and so I try to act pretty cool around those I admire. I will say other than stage/screen, I was once partnered up with Brooke Shields in a yoga class in Costa Rica….I was freaking out a bit then.

  1. Tell us something about you that we would not know from reading your resume.

I love the outdoors. I have travelled all over Canada on whitewater canoe trips. Last year, we did our first full family whitewater adventure lead by myself and my brothers on the Demoine River.

  1. What’s the most fun role you’ve ever played, and why?

I recently got decapitated by a killer warthog in SyFy’s Killer High. I tell ya, nothing like being behind the camera watching a dummy of you lose their head…one of those “I am getting paid to do this??!” moments.

  1. What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

I’ve been sitting here for a while now thinking, and I can’t come up with any. Clearly I’ve taken it and then made it my own, because I have amazing people in my life who dole it out to me all the time. All that comes to mind is my mom’s advice; “Never let anyone see you put on a pair of tights.”

  1. What will we see you in next?

Coming up next, I have a great guest star role on Netflix’s October Faction, a new TV show which is set to air in the next few months. It’s a fun vampire-witch-ghost-spirit delight. I can’t say much about my role, but it was a dream to work on.

News You Can Use

What: Mary’s Wedding, written by Stephen Massicotte; Co-produced by Mary Young Leckie’s Solo Productions and Derrick Chua; Directed by Kent Staines
Performed by Fraser Elsdon and Kate Ross
Who: Audiences 12 years of age and older
When: January 31 – February 16, 2019; Run Time: 85 minutes (no intermission)
Where: Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, On
Info and Tickets: www.crowstheatre.com

© 2019 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine

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