4th Line Theatre/The Great Shadow, written by Alex Poch-Goldin, directed by Cynthia Ashperger, Winslow Farm, Millbrook ON, June 28 to July 23. Tickets available here.
For 30 years, 4th Line Theatre has been mounting shows mostly anchored in the local community, and their latest effort, The Great Shadow by Alex Poch-Goldin, follows that tradition. This time, the centrepiece is a movie studio built in Trenton in 1917. Who knew?
Nowadays, when we think of Trenton, we think of the mega RCAF airbase, but if producer George Brownridge’s dreams had been fulfilled, Canada could have developed a movie industry that rivalled Hollywood. Brownridge (Colin A. Doyle) called his studio Adanac Films (Canada backwards), and his major goal was to create feature movies. As the play points out, however, forces conspired against him.
First there was the Ontario Motion Picture Bureau, founded in 1917, that felt true Canadian films should be educational ones aimed at farmers, school children and factory workers. A second aim was producing films that encouraged the building of highways and public works — in other words, movies now showing in your church basement. Brownridge’s idea of a Canadian feature film industry fell mostly on deaf ears. In fact, the OMPB actually bought Adanac Films in 1923 when Brownridge realized his dream was dead.
A strong second voice against Canadian features was Hollywood mogul Adolph Zukor (Salvatore Scozzari), a founder of Paramount Studios, who didn’t want competition from Canada. Because he and his Hollywood colleagues owned all the movie theatres and, therefore, had a monopoly on distribution, any Canadian feature film could be squeezed out.
Playwright Poch-Goldin opted for a scatter gun approach to the script, and there is a lot going on in The Great Shadow, perhaps too much.
First there is Brownridge, who, when he does finally get to make a feature, called, not surprisingly, The Great Shadow, he runs into grief, as his imported American stars cause chaos. Lounge lizard Tyrone Power, Sr., yes, the father of, (M. John Kennedy), takes a shine to local war widow Maddy Donegal (Julia Scaringi), whose precocious young daughter Sunny (Indigo Chesser) gets a role in the film and runs away with it.
Power’s co-star, Marguerite Snow (Madison Sheward) is just awful and nasty. As Power remarks, “Can you blame her husband for leaving her?” Snow, however, is a feminist who is fighting against male dominance in the picture industry. Also thrown into the mix is Maddy’s interface with the ghost of her dead soldier husband Shane (Thomas Fournier). And lest we forget, also making an appearance is a young actor in the early stages of his career called Clark Gable (Robert Morrison).
And then there are the Communists. In fact, the film The Great Shadow features a union on strike, which maddens the investors. But, Poch-Goldin takes it further, setting scenes in Russia as the Revolution progresses. We actually get to meet Lenin (Shelley Simester) and Stalin (Sochi Fried) as they plot their destinies, and what makes their portrayals even funnier, is that the two women also play real life, feuding gossip columnists, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, respectively, who follow the making of The Great Shadow with great interest, including its spectacular failure.
If this is a dizzying amount of information, it’s just touching on the many themes and tropes that populate the play. While the inclusion of real and imaginary figures is fascinating, as is the history of Brownridge’s dream and Zukor’s revenge, the play almost becomes buried under its own weight. Poch-Goldin is a master at writing snappy dialogue and very funny one-liners, so that skill is somewhat of a saving grace.
The production values, as usual at 4th Line, are top notch. Director Cynthia Ashperger has done a great job at using every nook and cranny of the barns and barnyard as a playing space for her large cast who all give enthusiastic performances, while Laura Delchiaro’s costumes and Esther Vincent’s set and props are firmly rooted in eye-catching period. Once again, Justin Hiscox has provided a musical score that is a clever mix of real songs and originally composed, jazz-filled, Twenties silent movie music.
Despite its over-busy script, The Great Shadow still manages to entertain, and that is the greatness of 4th Line Theatre. Even weaker plays are fun to watch.
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