George F. Walker's ORPHANS FOR THE CZAR previews March 29-31, opens April 1 and runs to April 17 at Crow's Theatre

Looking Ahead

Courtesy of Crow's Theatre

Joe Szekeres

The first play of George’s I had read during my undergraduate at Western over forty years ago was Zastrozzi. I had the opportunity to see a rather solid production of it performed well several years ago at a local community theatre group here in Durham Region.

I remember my Canadian Literature professor stating during the lecture the play was rather controversial for its time, but it was an extremely important one as part of the Canadian theatre mosaic. As an eager undergraduate of English Language and Literature eons ago, I waited patiently for Walker’s response to this rather brief analysis during our recent telephone conversation.

What he said made me wonder if other playwrights did or now do the same thing.

George has thought a lot about Zastrozzi over the years since its 1977 premiere at Toronto Free Theatre directed by Bill Lane. Walker felt accomplished with the work that was done with the original cast because it was so different at the time from all the other plays on the Toronto stages then. Zastrozzi had all the elements necessary to make it a good production: swashbuckling scenes, melodrama, selfishness, greed, playfulness, sexual references, psychological wordplay. Yet Walker and Lane wondered where the play fit in because it wasn’t like others in Toronto at that time.

Hmmm…and thus the reason why he has returned to think about Zastrozzi. Walker’s pleased that it is still an actor’s piece and that it still speaks to the community theatre and professional level because actors love to perform it, but that question of fitting in remains.

I wonder if audiences now, and in the future, will look at Walker’s newest play Orphans for the Czar and consider how it fits into the current Canadian theatre mosaic? Will it be considered an actor’s piece? Will the actors allow the story to speak for itself? Possible discussion I guess when the production opens on March 29.

From Crow’s website: “George F. Walker’s newest high-stakes comedy [Orphans] ruefully explores the duplicity, revenge, and self-interest at the core of a culture about to go up in flames. Suggested by [Maxim Gorky’s] ‘The Life of a Useless Man’ and set before Bloody Sunday in St. Petersburg, a hapless double agent tries to stay on the right side of both the revolutionaries and the czarists…a comedy of pathos about the fragility of people in unstable times, Orphans for the Czar is a plea for the possibility of decency.”

Some very heady stuff here in Orphans’ brief plot description so I asked George why he felt the play was an important one for 2022 audiences.

It was during the Trump era that Walker became fascinated with those Americans who voted for the Donald. Were they vulnerable people easily convinced to join any group, or in this case Trump’s group? One wouldn’t know it from seeing the recent news reports of the terror emanating from Russia on Ukraine right now, but George spoke about the Russian people as a vulnerable people in his play. I’m curious to see how this possible vulnerability might play out in Orphans.

The play will be directed by Tanja Jacobs with some cast members whom I’ve seen on other stages and in other previous works. She spoke in a recent online conversation with George about the love she has for Orphans and how he has been inspired by her enthusiasm. George told me he hasn’t sat in on any rehearsals at this time and is hoping to sometime this coming week as he has been at his home with his seven-month-old granddaughter. In our conversation, George told me he trusts Tanja, and this cast completely and is not worried at all. When he sent some re-writes to the cast, everyone fell in love with the new pages.

George further commented how he has fallen in love with writing for the theatre once again. There was a near ten-year absence as he was working on television shows: This is Wonderland, The Line, and Living in Your Car. Yes, he had control over the writing he was completing for television, but he felt that at least in Canada you can’t go that far in writing regarding elements that might be either too emotional or too personal.

Walker writes freely. He likes digging deeper into the psyche of individuals and he’s now having a hell of a good time writing again for the stage. From listening to his voice at the other end of the line, I could hear a jokester tone as he acknowledged whether the plays get produced is another question. Whether his children and grandchildren will make sure his plays are produced in the future is another discussion as well.

I promised George that I would not turn this phone call into a Covid related pre-show/profile for Orphans, and again he laughed, and I could tell from his voice he was pleased that wouldn’t occur; however, there was one Covid related element regarding the theatre and how it will look post-Covid for George and I wanted to hear his perspective.

And again, his response was something that I hope all theatres will take to heart as we all move forward after two years.

In his conversation with Tanja, George spoke about “the higher the stakes in the world, the higher the stakes there must be in anything he writes about the world.” I asked if this statement could also be applied to Canadian actors as they move forward.

George once again confirmed how actors nearly had almost everything taken away from them during these last two years. Everyone involved in the theatre is thankful to be able to return and has recognized how lucky they are to be back, but for George, it appears that audiences have been left out of the conversation.

It’s important to have that connection to the audiences and let them feel things once again. There is going to be a hesitancy for some audience members, but there will be a voracious eagerness for those who want to return. There’s nothing in the world like a live connection to a theatrical piece where the audience can see the sweat on the actor’s brow or the tear in the eye. Walker wants to get back to theatre touching us on so many levels. Perhaps more blood will be spilled, but if that provides a live connection to an audience to feel emotions, so much the better.

Thank you so much for the phone conversation, George and for re-connecting me once again to experience those emotions that make all of us human.

The cast for Orphans for the Czar includes Christopher Allen, Shayla Brown, Eric Peterson, Kyle Gatehouse, Patrick McManus, Michelle Mohammed, Paolo Santalucia and Shauna Thompson.

The production previews March 29, 30, 31. It opens April 1 and runs to April 17, 2022, at Crow’s Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto. Call the Box office to purchase tickets at (647) 341-7390 ex. 1010 or visit www.crowstheatre.com for more information.

To learn more about George F. Walker, visit his website: www.georgefwalker.ca.

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