January 29, 2009
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'You Fancy Yourself' revisits childhood
By JOHN COULBOURN - Sun Media


TORONTO - In many ways, playwright/performer Maja Ardal is a creature of the Canadian stage -- a student of the late George Luscombe and a member of the storied company he created under the banner of Toronto Workshop Productions.

In her latest work, however, Ardal takes everything Luscombe taught her and returns it to her pre-Luscombe days, revisiting a childhood played out in the streets of 1950's Edinburgh, after the young Ardal and her Icelandic parents emigrated to Scotland.

Indeed, it is that very move that Ardal chooses to launch You Fancy Yourself, a memory play in which she revisits the streets of her childhood and weaves the characters she meets there into a delightful evening of theatre.

You Fancy Yourself opened Tuesday in the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, produced in association with Contrary Company.

The story is told through the eyes of young Elsa, who is but four years old when we meet her, recovering from seasickness as she catches her first sight of the city that will become her new home.

At first, Elsa's new world is populated only by her take-charge mother and her beloved father, but soon it grows to encompass, not just the frightening Scrubbing Lady (an old crone charged with keeping the stairs of the tenement clean), but also the timid young Adele, who at the same age as Elsa, is as shy and quiet as Elsa is outgoing and gregarious.


Despite the differences, not only in their personalities, but in their backgrounds, they bond, and soon the friendship they've formed is carried over into the perilous world of Miss Campbell's class at Bruntsfield School.

Enrolled though they may be at Bruntsfield, the two girls are not exactly embraced, Elsa because of her foreign roots and take-charge ways and Adele because of her other-worldliness and her poverty.

Ardal herself plays all 11 characters in the work, from the young Elsa to the swaggering Michael Bailey, the 11-year-old big man on campus whose whistle awakens not only envy and ambition but a few feminine feelings as well in the heart of the tomboy Elsa has become.

And under the direction of Mary Francis Moore, she does it all with minimum fuss and bother, limiting herself to only two costumes and instead relying on her voice and her physicality to make the switch from character to character, as the story unfolds on Julia Tribe's stunningly simple set.

Best of all, under Moore's direction, Ardal (who once served as artistic director of Young People's Theatre and hence, one assumes, knows kids quite well) keeps the cloying cuteness to a minimum, painting Elsa in delightful shades of flawed humanity and trusting her audience will swallow reminiscences that aren't all sickly sweet. Thanks to her performance we are allowed to learn to love Elsa and her friends, despite their faults, in a world that too often would have us believe that children have no faults. To hear Elsa recite the gory details of the massacre at Glencoe or impart the news that her rival has the mumps is to touch the real heart of childhood.

Best of all, in a world where too often we attempt to carve our theatre into packages that fit arbitrary time frames, Ardal simply takes the time it takes to tell her story, unencumbered and unbothered by the deadlines imposed on similar tales to make them festival-friendly.

Clocking in at under two hours, with intermission, YFY certainly doesn't feel long and, more importantly, as it stands now, it does a bang-up job of telling the story Ardal wants to tell.

And that's a story her audience will be delighted to hear.


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