2For the last 26 years Prairie Theatre Exchange has been presenting an annual holiday adaptation of stories written by beloved Canadian children's author Robert Munsch. Each year PTE artistic director Robert Metcalfe checks his list of Munsch-themed titles, sometimes more than twice, before handing it over to adaptor Debbie Patterson, who chooses the stories and frames them with a merry customized theme.
This year's edition is called Magical Mystery Munsch and came from Metcalfe's teenage daughter. The Metcalfes annually spend time on a summer road trip riffing on Munsch title puns until one makes them laugh. Then Patterson has to do the real work.
"I like that he gives me the title," says Patterson, who has churned out seven Munsch adaptions. "So I knew with this one that I wanted to find stories that were fantastical, where magic things happen. I also wanted Beatles music in it."
Patterson pored over the 50-storybook Munsch catalogue again and chose five: Murmel, Murmel, Murmel, Mud Puddle, ROAR, Millicent and the Wind and Look at Me! The first two are almost examples of magical realism, especially in Murmel, where a girl named Robin discovers a hole in her backyard sandbox, reaches in and pulls out a baby she has to care for.
"After that, I try to think what the world is that we are going to operate in," says Patterson, whose playwriting credits include the musical Head, Candy from a Baby and Molotov Circus. "For this one, Mr. Kite and his assistants are leading a tour through the brain of Robert Munsch."
Kite, who is played by Winnipeg actor Gordon Tanner, is a huckster who possesses a magical contraption that purports to be a portal into Munsch's brain. It is activated by singing; once inside, his stories are played out.
"It's like Willy Wonka meets John Malkovich," says Patterson, a founding member of Shakespeare in the Ruins.
"When we, as writers, write something down and let someone else read it, we're letting them take a tour of our brain. (Munsch's) brain is quite remarkable and, as we describe it in the show, it is a vast and strange place."
Set designer Janelle Regalbutto has paired a yellow submarine kind of psychedelic look with a cartoon depiction of Munsch. Patterson's husband, Arne McPherson, directs his ninth consecutive Munsch production.
"What I have learned about doing these shows is to get out of the way of the stories," says Patterson, whose favourite Munsch story is The Paper Bag Princess. "It's such a delicate balance. I have to create a story that has a beginning, middle and end, and characters that need something from each other. Really, what I have to make sure happens is that his stories get featured."
As always, Patterson has to send the first draft of her adaptation to Munsch for his approval. He always says yes, without any further comment. This year she was a little more worried that trekking through the 67-year-old Ontario-based writer's head might be considered too intrusive, given that his name is uttered again and again through the hour-long show at the Portage Place-based theatre. There was no protest from Munsch.
This year she re-read about 20 Munsch stories in search of the material for Magical Mystery Munsch. It reinforced what she admires so much about his work.
"I love how he lampoons parents, because being a parent is often ridiculous," says Patterson, who is currently working her verbatim theatre piece Sargent & Victor. "His books help parents see the ridiculousness of what it is they are doing. It's always funny because it's true."
Metcalfe says he doesn't have next year's title yet, because last summer his family flew instead of driving to their vacation destination.
"So I guess it will be our Christmas dinner conversation," he says. "Maybe I will throw caution to the wind and see what Debbie comes up with."
Magical Mystery Munsch opens Friday with a rush-seating show (tickets are $10) at 1 p.m., followed by an assigned-seating show ($12.99) at 7 p.m. It continues through Jan. 6, after which a two-month provincial tour begins. Tickets to the Winnipeg shows can be purchased by calling 204-942-5483 or at www.pte.mb.ca
Magical Mystery Munsch
Prairie Theatre Exchange
óè Opens Dec. 21, to Jan. 6
óè Tickets: $12.99, $10 for rush seat shows