The story of how the local teenager, her father, younger brother, and Newfoundland dog rescued 163 survivors of the shipwrecked Despatch in July 1828 is commonly known, but in “Song of the Mermaid” the historic tale is told from a different point of view.
“I tell it from a different perspective because I’m an outsider,” said playwright Jamie Skidmore, who originally hails from Ontario and is a professor at Memorial University.
This time the story is told by one of the Despatch’s crew, who survives the wreck and returns home, where he recounts details of the voyage and Ann’s heroism to his family.
“There’s a lot of research,” said Skidmore, who worked closely with residents of Isle aux Morts to write the play. Skidmore pored over university archives, listened to oral history, and pulled information from online resources.
“One of the most useful pieces of information that we found was the fact that the captain of the ship died in the jolly boat.”
During a workshop session with the community, someone asked why the captain didn’t just go down with the ship as is expected – that question helped shape the play’s narrative. While writing the play, Skidmore was well aware of how important the tale is Isle aux Morts.
“The minute details aren’t there, so you have to take creative license,” he said. “That’s why I worked with the community, to develop that, to make sure I didn’t take artistic license that was inappropriate for the community. It’s their story that I tell.”
For Kristin LeFrense, the story carries personal weight. Her family descends from the Harvey line, and the recent Grenfell graduate admits that connection is part of what drew her to audition for the role.
“It’s just a hometown story so everyone has a pretty close connection to it,” said LeFrense, who also wanted to try something new and out of her usual comfort zone – this is her first big role other than a school play several years previously. It helped that LeFrense shares a few traits with her famous ancestor, such as sincerity and kindness.
“I love helping others,” she said.
Director Kevin Woolridge hails from Goulds and has been in theatre for over 20 years. He has just finished his masters at York University and was recruited by Skidmore to help pull off this year’s production.
“We were really lucky in the way it panned out, that everybody that came on board – all from different levels of experience –all gelled together really well,” said Woolridge of the open audition process. “It’s really exciting to work with them.”
In addition to directing duties, Woolridge is launching on a one-man show called All The Birds in Their Bird Houses. That show will tour Cow Head, Corner Brook, Gander, Milton and George’s Brook. Although his own writing is more contemporary, Woolridge very much enjoys the Ann Harvey story.
“It’s very important to celebrate our heroes,” said Woolridge. “I think a hero is just someone who is ordinary and does what has to be done. And that’s exactly what she and her family did.”
Showcase double review
In “Song of the Mermaid”, the legend of Ann Harvey is told from the perspective of the Despatch’s surviving first mate, who recounts not only the teenager’s famous heroism and that of her family, but also speaks about a couple of the ship’s passengers. Factually the story is compelling in and of itself, but playwright Jamie Skidmore’s narrative offers a fresh perspective on an old legend.
Using nothing but a rope to set the scene, and without benefit of elaborate costumes or set changes, the cast transitions seamlessly into the various characters they portray. Only LeFrense is constant in a single role as Ann Harvey, her legend a constant presence even when the narrative doesn’t focus on her directly.
In the title role, Kristin LeFrense delivers a solid and likeable performance of a teenager who lovingly interacts with her family and goes about the typical day’s chores, yet somehow unsurprisingly morphs into a true hero when she must.
The rest of the cast is no less impressive, particularly Nathan Day’s constant transition between Ann’s innocent young brother Tom, and scandalous Despatch crewmember and rogue O’Reilly.
In addition to the expected historic tale of heroism, the talented cast delivers a nice complement of Irish music and even a few lighter moments amidst what is essentially a tragic tale.
Although described as a puppet show about a woman who falls in love with a fish, A Fish Tale bears almost no resemblance to traditional puppet shows. Huge marionettes on delicate frames are awash with colour as they roam about the floor instead of popping up from behind a curtain or on a stage.
Very little dialogue is spoken other than scattered news reports and carefully chosen music used to convey information and set the tone. At times elegant and thought provoking, the play also features a bit of swordplay to add a touch of excitement for younger audience members.