ArtsReviewTheatre

Blood of the Red Queen: Citizen Smee an irresistibly funny production that slightly overstays its welcome

If you’re new to the Calgary theatre scene, you need to know that we have a rich community theatre tradition going back decades, with a dozen or so companies presenting shows in any given year, many of them since the early ’80s. There are enough of them that in some cases, they have carved out unique niches — from musical theatre to Gilbert and Sullivan to plays by and about the Irish, there is a community theatre that fits you.

Scorpio Theatre is a relative youngster, being less than a decade old, but specializes in new work — with a subspeciality in Nerd. If they were musicals too, I’d be in heaven.

Founder, vice president of the board, writer in residence, and social media director Dan Gibbins (one wears a lot of hats in community theatre) is a prolific playwright. He’s seen more than 30 of his plays produced, and has already penned a sequel to his 2015 show Blood of the Red Queen. In that one, the Red Queen from Wonderland is found murdered in an alley in Los Angeles in 1947, and private detective Jim Hawkins has to figure out whether suspicious characters from Neverland, Wonderland, or Oz are the culprits. His great success in that case means that this time, the U.S. government has sought him out for his expertise. Wonderland and Oz are on the brink of war and have been invited to L.A. for a summit. Queen Ozma is kidnapped, and someone needs to quietly find her before her disappearance destabilizes the peace talks. 

Jim Hawkins, the world-weary PI with a heart of gold, has a family with untold wealth thanks to a stash his great-grandfather found on Treasure Island. He’s turned his back on the family money, though, and spends his days chasing cheating spouses and delivering classic noir monologues under a streetlight like every fictional 1940s detective in L.A. He is played by Duane Jones, who slides easily into his role from the original play and provides an anchor for the surreal activity that swirls around him while he pinches the bridge of his nose in exasperation.

There’s a dame, obviously. Well, three of them, to be precise. The femme fatale in this case is Hawkins’ sister Argent (Jennifer Merio), who is working for the U.S. government and comes to him for help solving the case, but is obviously keeping some secrets. The owner of the standard bar-with-the-shady-clientele is Dorothy Gale (Shandra McQueen), an ex-pat princess of Oz and a fan of red shoes. And the source that Hawkins turns to for help in shaking information out of L.A.’s seedy underground is Alice Liddell (Stephanie Morris), who knows Wonderland like the back of her hand — a handy skill, since most people find it quite hard to comprehend — but holds a bit of a grudge against the White Queen.

One of the first suspects to turn up is Smee, former sidekick to Captain Hook, now building an organized crime syndicate along the west coast. But it’s equally possible that Glinda has found that the realities of leading a nation are inconsistent with remaining purely Good, or that the White Queen has tired of the world dismissing her just because they don’t understand her. So the mayhem ensues.

The premise is irresistible, and Gibbins writes very funny dialogue. The performances are generally strong, and although there are some flubbed lines and unplanned crashes from back stage, the story is engaging. McQueen and Morris in particular have tremendous comedic timing, and Gibbins’ witty text sits well with them. 

The main problem is that it’s so long. So very, very long. Like, Angels In America long. Well, maybe it was only three hours, but still. The plot is complex, but doesn’t need quite as much exposition as it gets, and there are endless monologues on the topic of U.S. aggression, the plight of commoners drawn into fighting wars for the benefit of wealthy leaders, and the tendency of humans to fear and hate that which they don’t understand. All good points, but all of them richly illustrated by the story itself. The preachy interludes could have been cut without sacrificing any of the moral comment.

Director Chelsea Millard’s staging is ambitious given the small space and likely even smaller budget. Using a series of painted panels that flip like pages in a storybook (I have it on good authority, although there isn’t a program as such, that the set was painted by Susan Soprovich, who is also Scorpio marketing director), the set moves from Dorothy’s bar to an alley to a seedy waterfront warehouse. There’s a bit of loud scrambling between scenes, as a team of movers descend and shift every item of scenery in the tiny space, but the sets are effective and the noir mood is clearly established early on. 

Make sure you go the washroom before it starts, but you could definitely do worse than spending an evening with these crazy characters.

(Photo from Scorpio Theatre’s Blood of the Red Queen: Citizen Smee courtesy Ian Pond.)

Blood of the Red Queen: Citizen Smee runs at the Pumphouse Theatres until March 2. 

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.

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