Horsing around

The Two Horsewomen

Review | by Sean McQuaid

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The Guild, Charlottetown – August 19, 2022

Theatrical world premieres in PEI tend to be either plays written by local artists or shows staged at our biggest venue (the Confederation Centre of the Arts), or both—but there are exceptions. While actors Robin Craig and Judy Marshak have logged many PEI credits in their 50+ years on stage, they’re not usually based in this province; and their brand-new co-starring vehicle The Two Horsewomen, written by Craig, is debuting at the Confederation Centre’s scrappy little next-door neighbour, indispensable indie arts hub The Guild.

The late journalist Bill Cameron, Craig’s brother, hatched the show’s concept in 2004 when he, Craig and Marshak were discussing the challenges faced by “older actresses.” The play Craig wrote based on Cameron’s outline features two characters, Cynthia and Edith (played by Marshak and Craig, respectively); veteran actors and older women, both have signed onto an acclaimed director’s new stage version of Zorro. Cynthia is a diva accustomed to big parts in big venues while Edith is a respected character actor who does smaller, artsier ensemble fare. Needing money, they both accept “as cast” contracts, meaning the director can use them in any roles he chooses.

Seeing few parts in the Zorro script suitable for women their age, Cynthia and Edith (who share a dressing room) have half-supportive, half-competitive chats about who could play each character and which parts they’re likely to get—until their director saddles them with the most unexpected, weirdly challenging role either of them has ever played.

Craig’s script gives us two distinct, likeable characters and an affectionately knowing yet unsentimentally clear-eyed look at life in the theatre, not to mention what it’s like being an older woman in show biz (someone should send some comps to Lisa LaFlamme). Not every line sparkles (a salty comet gag has a contrived sitcom ring to my ears though some of the crowd quite liked it), but most of the dialogue sounds natural and is often quite funny, aided by the comic chops and stage chemistry of two very solid leads. 

One of many highlights: the husky venom of Marshak’s delivery when Cynthia tells a freshly promoted Edith (subbing in one of the bigger roles) that she’s happy for her—though speaking of that understudy side plot, while it starts strong, it ultimately just fades away. That’s a script issue, albeit a minor one given how clever this play is overall.

Beyond the page, director Kate Lynch and company blend quirky personality into other aspects of the show, such as Lori Hickling’s carefully cluttered dressing room set (featuring genuine theatrical posters from many past PEI plays) and her costume designs, including an outfit unlike anything else you’ll see this summer.

The best touch of mad genius in the show’s staging? Its soundtrack, built almost entirely around the thematically ideal, hypnotically infectious and gloriously campy 1979 Ethel Merman disco version of Irving Berlin’s 1946 classic “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Sheer demented perfection. 

During scene changes, this music accompanies two nameless, silent stagehand characters (rotating roles played on the night of this review by a puckish Nathaniel Ing and his all-business foil Jennifer Arsenault) who prep the show’s props, scenery, costumes and such as needed, but with enough whimsy and flair to feel like tiny plays within a play. Extras like that and some plummy voice-over work by local treasure Graham Putnam add fun additional flavours to an often-delicious premiere.

Sean McQuaid