Review: THE INVISIBLE, Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare.

by Lynn on January 24, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Grand Theatre, London, Ont. Playing until Feb. 3, 2024. Produced by Catalyst Theatre.

Written, composed and directed by Jonathan Christenson

Set, lighting, costumes and projection designed by Bretta Gerecke

Choreography by Courtney Arsenault

Sound and additional music by Matthew Skopyk

Music direction (vocals) by Ruth Alexander

Cast: Kristie Hansen

Kaylee Harwood

Melissa MacPherson

Sarah Nairne

Amanda Trapp

Justine Westby

Tahirih Vejdani

A chilling war story of how resourceful and fearless women could be. While the performances are vivid, the production is ponderously directed and choreographed. The music is melodic but the lyrics are simplistic. And on the whole the piece needs ruthless editing.

The Story. This is a fascinating story of heroism, bravery, tenacity and grit. It’s 1941 in London, England and the war effort needs help in Europe. Because men were off fighting in the war.  women had been recruited to do the men’s job at home—tending farms, working in factories making munitions, taking the place of the fighting men—they were not used directly as spies, as men were. The men in charge of British forces didn’t think women were up to the job. This changed when Evelyn Ash, who did work in administration for the British war effort, convinced her superior to let her create and train a group of women to be spies. Their job would involve going to France, working undercover to blow-up strategic places to stop the invading German army.

All the women spoke French; took jobs in France to be innocuous, invisible. They operated outside regular British channels and were called “Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” They completed several important missions. Then they were recruited to be involved with a complex, very dangerous mission and this is where they truly shone.

The Production and comment. Bretta Gerecke’s set is impressive in its spareness. A huge wall is at the back with many wood chairs affixed to the top of the wall. There are several wood chairs on the stage, some along the stage left and right wall, facing each other. There are a few chairs upstage. These are the only props. Gerecke’s stark lighting and projections establish location and mood.

The production starts in Romania a long time ago. A young woman is engaged to a dashing man who is visiting her at her home. She is there with her sisters. One day she goes to visit him at his huge manor house. He’s not there. The door is unlocked. She goes in to the gloomy house and sees a closed door up a hallway. She opens the door and goes into the room and see it’s filled with skeletons. I can’t remember if they were chained to the wall or not, but obviously something nasty happened there. The woman goes home. She plans a ruse to see if her fiancé will tell her what happened.

When the fiancé comes over to her house again, she tells him of a dream she had, and relates visiting the house and the skeletons etc. The fiancé is alerted in the telling that his fiancée has discovered something he didn’t want her to discover. I won’t reveal how this is resolved but the scene ends with the women singing “Be Bold”, a song of resilience and tenacity.

After a blackout we are now in London, England 1941. Evelyn Ash (Melissa MacPherson) crisp English accent, in military pants and shirt, tells us the details of how she formed her crack spy group of six brave women to become “The Invisible, Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” (I then spend the rest of this two hour and forty minute show trying to figure out what the first Romanian scene from long ago, has to do with the British war effort in 1941?)

We are told in quick succession of each of the women who are of various ethnicities and strengths. For example, Jacquline (Jack) Kovacs (an understated but impressive Kaylee Harwood) is a crack shot with any kind of firearm; Dorothy (Dot) Kristi Hansen is a meticulous planner; Anna Sidiqui (a wonderful Tahirih Vejdani) is an expert in code although a worry if she is interrogated. In the training trials Anna always succumbed to interrogation. So foreshadowing is established rather obviously.

The cast to a person is very strong, with Melissa MacPherson as Evelyn Ash a strong, determined leader. She had to stand her ground in a man’s world and yet play the game of diplomacy to get what she wanted for her group. As Madeline (Maddy) Barré—a chanteuse from Senegal, Sarah Nairne brought out all of Maddy’s charm, insouciance, flirtatious boldness and fearlessness.

The cast of seven actresses play all the parts, including those of the few men. Kristi Hansen, for example, plays Dot Ward and the head of the department, a stuffy, imperious man. All seven women are strong singers and perform with passion and conviction.

The story is terrific. It’s full of potential intrigue, tension, drama and possible grip-the-arm-rest-scenes. So, I’m heartsick that the production did not live up to its potential and make The Invisible, Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare a great piece of theatre. In spite of the strong cast, the production is ponderous. The direction by Jonathan Christenson is pedestrian and seems like so much traffic control. The pace of the dialogue is labored in an unnecessary effort to put weight on every important issue. The audience is smart. They can get it without everything being underscored.

Courtney Arsenault’s choreography looks like a deliberate attempt to recreate semaphore movements in formation on stage. Scene after scene has the cast jerk out their arms, raise them, flip them to the sides and bend their knees in the same kind of jerky movement. It’s deliberate, I just don’t know why.

Jonathan Christenson is a quadruple threat creator. He has written the book, the music, the lyrics and he directs this. The music is melodic and tuneful. But who tells him that he has overdone it with one of the other three areas? Who tells him that the book needs ruthless editing to tighten flabby areas, starting with the first scene in Romania because it’s extraneous. Evelyn tells us in the last scene the meaning of the Romanian folk tale. Again, meaning laid on by a trowel. The entire show after that first scene, proves the thesis of the folk tale. Trust your audience to get it without spoon feeding. Who tells him that his direction is less about establishing relationships and depth of story and more about moving people around, often for no reason, and the pace is glacial, certainly in scenes that should go like the wind? Who tells him that the lyrics are simplistic (“We are Victorious, We are Glorious, We are Warriors”)?  

Besides being frustrated by The Invisible, Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, I was just disappointed that it did not live up to such huge potential, strong cast notwithstanding.

Catalyst Theatre Presents:

Running until Feb. 3, 2024.

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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1 Heather Hunter February 1, 2024 at 11:35 pm

Costuming had me bewildered as Evelyn’s costume looked more like German SS Officer than British Military & the balance of the cast looked like part horseback riding
Costumes on the bottom & Bawdy house on most of the tops. Very Puzzling
Performances were strong beautiful voices but several of the choreography scenes reminded me of my chair yoga moves