Review: The Invisible, Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare challenges stereotypes about women and war
Well before the show starts, The Invisible starts to pulse.
Audience members settling into their seats become aware of a deep rumble rolling through the Citadel’s Maclab Theatre, which has been reconfigured as a modified proscenium stage to create an intimate setting for this intense musical by Catalyst Theatre’s Jonathan Christenson.
It’s an unsettling sound, like a thunderstorm, or a volcanic eruption. The noise is the first hint of the dramatic tension that exists in The Invisible, which builds steadily throughout the two-hour performance.
That tension is wrought through great writing, staging and performance. Not only do the show’s seven actors achieve an exceptionally high standard, Christenson’s remarkable crew, including choreographer Laura Krewski, Brette Gerecke (who designed sets, lights, costumes and projections), and Matthew Skopyk (who contributed to the music and is responsible for the sound design) succeeds in nailing an often-ineffable, but ultimately magical combination of theatrical elements.
The Invisible, Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, tells the story of six Allied agents who were dropped into France in the dying days of the Second World War. Their mission is to disrupt the German occupation through any means possible. The agents, all women, are unlikely heroes for their time. They are directed from London by a character named Evelyn Ash (Melissa MacPherson), who is based on a real-life individual, Vera Atkins, an assistant to the head of Winston Churchill’s Special Operations Executives.
In The Invisible, Evelyn (who narrates the tale) recruits and trains the female spies, all of whom must ask the question of themselves: “What would you be ready to lay down your life for?”
The characters find answers in their own backstories. Jaqueline (Melanie Piatocha) thinks of her daughter and husband, who has already been killed by the enemy. Dorothy (Kristi Hansen) yearns to employ her considerable brains to serve her country. Betty (Amanda Trapp) is a Cree nurse who was raised in a residential school and knows what it’s like to be occupied.
Each has a particular skill set (from demolition to decoding) that’s key to the mission. But one of them, Anna (Marie Mahabal), is perceived as a weak link. The mission’s success may depend on Anna’s commitment to the cause, but she struggles with the cost of war.
Director Christenson wrote the script and the songs for The Invisible (which ran in both Fort McMurray and Calgary before arriving here). While the story is well-crafted, the power of The Invisible lies within its poetic and powerful score. Some of the songs feature the sentimental swell of the big band sound that’s forever connected with the war era. Others pieces are near-operatic in their pain and passion.
A live band of three musicians — Christina Cuglietta, Stephanie Urquhart (who plays a remarkable trombone) and Tatiana Zagorac — brings a thrilling immediacy to the performance.
The cast is tight, strong and versatile, with exceptional vocal performances by Tara Jackson (playing songstress Madeline with great style in a French cabaret-style number) and Mahabal, who moves the heart with her rendition of How Did I Get Here? Evelyn, too, shows a haunting self-doubt with one particularly moving tune.
“All these things I did, that can’t be undone. And yet I carry on,” sings Evelyn in a sentiment that transcends the particulars of this story, and stays in the imagination long after the show has ended.
There is a rare richness in The Invisible. There is virtually no set; chairs provide the only props for the show. But lighting, projections and a myriad of costume detail (I could hardly take my eyes off of Evelyn’s precisely knotted tie) add layers of context to the performance. It feels not only like an immensely entertaining musical, but a conversation about digging deep, and what matters.
Once again, Christenson’s tiny, multi-award winning theatre company — which has toured the United Kingdom and the United States with hits such as Nevermore — has created a show that could hold its own in any theatre market. You’d be smart to catch it here.