Vertigo musical The Invisible a very earnest and literal tribute to one of the lesser-known chapters in military, feminist history

Vertigo Theatre has been aiming to venture (gently) out of the mystery theatre box in recent seasons, and it certainly does that with The Invisible — Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare. The world premiere by Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre, presented as the last show of Vertigo’s season, is more history lesson than theatre, which is an unexpected thing to say about something billed as a “spy noir musical.” It doesn’t have much of a plot to speak of, and there are no real characters. It does have great music, though, and a killer set.

What story exists here is based on the real-life existence of so-called “irregulars” — Allied soldiers during the Second World War who were tasked with espionage, propaganda and sabotage in occupied territories. According to Wikipedia, 3,200 of these were women, and this production features seven of them. The entire structure of the show is exposition, with the actors taking turns addressing the audience and describing the formation, training and mobilization of this team, referred to as “The Invisible.” Much of the tale is told in retrospect by Evelyn Ash (Melissa MacPherson), their handler who recruits them and is racked with foreshadowy guilt over the fate of “her girls,” which becomes concrete at the end of Act 2 (but is evident much earlier). 

There is no dialogue between characters and what action takes place is described with the distance dictated by hindsight, and therefore the “show, don’t tell” maxim is turned completely on its head. One of the songs consists of reviewing the agents’ files, including hometown, defining characteristics, and key skills, and that’s the extent of the development of character. Aside from accents (ably guided by dialect coach Doug Mertz), the lack of any significant interaction means that the women are essentially interchangeable. 

The Invisible is the brainchild of Catalyst artistic director Jonathan Christenson, who wrote the book, lyrics and music, acted as musical director, and directed the production. The music is layered and complex, and the arrangements take full advantage of the uniformly excellent voices and wide vocal range in the all female cast (the others are Hailey Gillis, Kristi Hansen, Melanie Piatocha, Kaitlyn Semple, Amanda Trapp and Justine Westby). The music and vocal talent are unquestionably the highlights of the production. At the same time, the choreography by Laura Krewski cleverly disguises a wide range in dancing ability between the actors and complements the musical arrangements with simple but evocative movement.

The show is emotionally somewhat monotone, however — every song is a big ensemble piece with the same dynamic shape, and each one an anthem to girl power. From “we’re dreamers, we’re fighters, we’re leaders … like a girl,” to, “I will stand with the girls who dream,” “the roses of England can save the lilies of France,” and, “I will overcome, for I have just begun,” or my favourite, “no more barriers, for we are warriors — female warriors!” the text makes the same point relentlessly. The girls are pretty and plucky, and we underestimate them at our peril. 

There is one character who is developed a little bit, and too late. Anna (Gillis) is the most underestimated of an underestimated bunch, and her superiors doubt she can withstand arrest by the Germans. She proves them wrong and has a single, lovely monologue song at the very end of Act 2 — far too late for us to care what happens to her or any of her colleagues. 

The show’s design by Bretta Gerecke is surreal and intriguing — it is marked by innumerable chairs, suspended from the ceiling and used on stage to indicate everything from a dead body to a bus. Projections set the tone and context, sometimes subtly and sometimes an unexpected visual focal point. Her lighting choices, perhaps in reaction to the unchanging narrative dynamic, are uniformly dark, though. Like, Battle of Winterfell dark. 

There are two laughs in the show — one at the end of Act 1, and one at the end of Act 2. Humour is not a tool being used here, nor is metaphor. It’s a very earnest and literal tribute to one of the lesser-known chapters in military and feminist history, and there were quite a few audience members on the night I attended who were fired up and ready to take on the world after seeing it. Unfortunately, it just made me want to go online and watch old episodes of X Company.

(Photos courtesy Citrus Photography.)

The Invisible — Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare runs at Vertigo Theatre until June 9. 

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