Once upon a time, a girl born in an undesirable country meets a boy from the land of freedom and opportunity: and so begins the not-so-fairy-tale journey of Matchstick in Nathan Howe’s beautifully inventive musical-narrative that stitches enchanting storytelling to heart-stopping reality.
Young Matchstick (Lauren Holfeuer) leaves behind a traumatic childhood moving to her uncle’s home in an unnamed city, where her difficult past gives way to a sparkling adolescence in a city replete with parties, comical suitors and ultimately the enigmatic foreigner Alik (Nathan Howe). Through self-contained episodes the story arc moves across the ocean from a colorful yet autocratic Soviet land to an idealized yet polarized US driving ever closer to a dark plot twist that no spoiler should reveal.
A simple set with little more than a cut-out cityscape backdrop, a screen and musical instruments dotted about transforms through the astounding and novel use of lighting. Projections, shadow-puppetry and ingenious though limited use of props, elevate the accomplished narrative and bring characters and settings fully to life across borders and cultures.
From the opening story of Matchstick at the zoo, through the animated picture-frame Aunt Valia, the befuddling bus ride, the poignant teaching gig and the acquired pram, to the tremendous use of archived recordings, each scene has remarkable visual impact. The result is stunning design from the creative team and a veritable feast for the eyes where even subtle costume changes evoke temperament and mood shifts while a rolled up blanket delivers a cradled infant.
Howe and Holfeuer bring consummate depth to the principle roles whilst also fairly cramming the stage with a cornucopia of well rounded and entertaining characters. The physical delivery is graceful and accomplished with charming dance numbers, particularly the ‘orphans’. The music does away with the contrived awkwardness of so many musicals in favour of an independent contemporary delivery that is highly successful given the talents of these two artist. Holfeuer’s poignant New Year’s Eve in the bath is a stand-out to watch for.
The story’s twist is revealed rather early on in the production. I felt that the “reveal” would have had greater impact if left to the penultimate scene, which is beautifully executed through sound, imagery and acetate overlays. However, this is but a small critique to bring to an exceptional work.
Nathan Howe and Lauren Holfeuer deliver impeccable performances under the masterful direction of Kristen Holfeuer. This is must-see theatre with a concluding reprisal as piercing and visually satisfying as this triumphant production is throughout.
Matchstick runs from January 21st to 31st 2016 (8 pm Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday & Friday, 4 & 8:30 pm Saturday, and 2 pm Sunday, with a special matinee Wednesday, January 27 at 12pm.) at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. Tickets are available online.