Goin’ down the road

Why attend a high-school reunion when you've never left?

Bad hairdos, unbelievable naïveté and first love are just some of the things we remember while attending a high-school reunion. Although bittersweet at times, Mary Ellen MacLean has used her east-coast sensibility and innate sense of humour to bring laughter to the subject in her one lesbian show, Frankie.

Buddies In Bad Times has imported MacLean and her close-knit entourage from their Halifax home base for an exclusive Toronto engagement. Joining MacLean in Toronto will be her partner and lighting designer, Leigh Ann Vardy. “Leigh Ann is a lighting designer in her own right. Sleeping with her is just a fringe benefit,” offers MacLean.

Also in attendance will be Christian Murray, one of Frankie’s co-creators and Maclean’s friend since third grade remedial reading class. “We were pre-ADD,” says Murray. “What they used to call rambunctious.” Murray’s partner, Mary Colin Chisholm, who directs the show, rounds out the ensemble.

MacLean brought the idea for Frankie to Vardy, Murray and Chisholm last spring. Drawing on MacLean’s own life and loves, the quartet brought to life the eight characters who attend a high-school reunion in a gym. MacLean’s performance has been described as “a celebration of the individual.” This highly energetic piece is a seamless blend of spoken text and physical theatre.

Physical theatre? MacLean explains the term this way. “Mime. But mime has been given a really bad name – so we have changed the white face and striped shirt of mime. Originally mime meant to mimic life and we do whatever we have to do, to do that.”

Frankie, you may have guessed, is the character closest to MacLean’s own personality. When pressed for a description, Chisholm offers the following director’s insight, “Skitter scatter, let’s get at her. Quit yer grinning,’ drop your linen. She’s a nail-driver.”

A nail-driver? Apparently MacLean, when not channelling her abundance of energy into physical comedy, has created many works of demolition and renovation, all cheerfully noted by her circle of family and friends.

Vardy recollects, “We bought a very old house in Halifax, but it needed a ton of work. We got it cheap. And in the morning I would come downstairs to find Mary Ellen wearing her housecoat with her big leather tool belt wrapped around her middle, and she’d be sanding floors. And she’d be making pancakes as well. And she’d have her boots on because she was gardening at the same time, four days out of seven.”

It is this same energy that has made audiences enthusiastic about Frankie. Although not autobiographical, each character in the piece does contain bits and bites of the performer’s own life. Among them are Frankie’s guitar totin’, dope smokin’ girlfriend Tundra, her best friend Joey, self-named “the Dartmouth fairy,” and a spokeswoman for Gay-Away, Marlene Van Derk.


Probably most poignant of all the characters are Frankie’s parents. MacLean explains, “The mom and dad are based on mine. They did go through a lot on their own and they didn’t put that on me. They were really respectful. You see I come from a Catholic family and that whole thing.”

MacLean has never moved very far away from home. She grew up a 15-minute ferry ride away from Halifax, in the satellite city of Dartmouth. Her parents still live in the old family home. She is the baby of five children, and as such she received all the fuss and love traditionally given to the last in line.

“I got along great with them. We didn’t fight because I was the youngest. My sister would take me on wild adventures. My brothers would get me up on the roof.” With a laugh she adds, “Mother had about three heart attacks.” Not surprisingly, all three MacLean brothers, sharing in their little sister’s passion, became carpenters. Her father’s garden is reknown in their neighbourhood. “The MacLeans are all pretty wee. And lean. They’re a woodsy lot,” says Vardy describing her in-laws.

Sports have figured prominently throughout MacLean’s life, as they do in Frankie with its hilarious hockey segment. Director Chisholm makes the connection, “Back then she was the star athlete and her dad was the coach – they were the glory days.” MacLean recalls, “I played hockey till they told me I couldn’t play any longer. They said the guys were getting too big and they were afraid they were going to hurt me. But I have a pretty good hip check. I’m very low to the ground.”

During her high school years MacLean shifted her emphasis away from sports, finding an outlet for her energy in performance. She shared this interest with long-time chum Murray. When the pair, who had become best friends by this point, left high school, they hooked up with Shelley Wallace and Sherry Lee Hunter to form a physical theatre troupe named Jest In Time. The company has made a living performing together for the last 20 years.

Murray describes life on the road with three lesbians: “It’s a great lifestyle. An odd brother and sisters relationship, with no authority figures around, trying to figure it out.” Chisholm, who has directed a best of Jest In Time show adds, “He’s an honourary lesbian – with ugly bits.”

Although Frankie is not a Jest In Time production, its roots in the company are very much evident in its playing style. The closeness of the troupe has been strengthened by time spent away from each other working on solo projects. Frankie is MacLean’s solo album, so to speak.

About 10 years ago Jest In Time began to shift its focus away from traditional mime towards more text-based material. Seeking wider audiences the troupe began to introduce adult themes into its material. Frankie is an offshoot of this shift.

Jest In Time’s year round touring schedule has given MacLean the opportunity to perfect her craft in front of live audiences. From its beginnings in auditoriums and school gymnasiums, the troupe gained a citywide reputation, which grew to into provincial, then national and now international recognition. They have had three specials on the CBC and played to standing ovations in Japan and Germany.

One of the seeds that germinated Frankie in MacLean’s mind was the thought of first love. MacLean realized her romantic interest in girls by the time she was seven. She first fell in love in seventh grade, “or what you believe to be falling in love,” says MacLean, “more like complete obsession.

“Part of Frankie is based on that first love – that first falling in love and being rejected. It just broke my heart. And I thought, ‘Woah! I am in for a ride here.'” As part of MacLean’s ride she would later find herself dumped every time she stayed out on the road for too long. Eventually however she met up with Vardy who describes their romantic history like this, “We met in Halifax first through being in the arts community. I was a theatre student and Jest In Time was in full swing.Years later we both just happened to be single one weekend and got together.”

“She has this amazing energy about her and warmth with people that made me fall in love with her. She really listens to people.”

The couple has been together now for 10 years and they divide their time between their Halifax home and a place by the sea. “Like all good lesbian couples we have a dog, a black lab named Molly.” Murray and partner Chisholm also have a dog, which he claims is the actual bond that cements these two couples together.

The common history and mutual laughs of these two couples make Frankie’s high-school reunion less of a bittersweet experience than a heartfelt joke worth sharing.


PWYC. Tue & Sun. $18-$25. Wed-Sat.

8pm. Tue-Sat. 2:30pm. Sun.

Tue, Nov 26-Dec 15.

Buddies In Bad Times Theatre.

12 Alexander St.

(416) 975-8555.

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