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Winnipeg Fringe Festival

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Chasing ghosts

Director's eerie production feels steered from beyond the grave

Posted: 07/19/2011 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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George Toles is a haunted man.

The distinguished professor of film studies at the University of Manitoba, also a veteran theatre director and co-writer of Guy Maddin's screenplays, has felt the shadowy presence this summer of J.M. Barrie and Alfred Hitchcock.

Both artists have been key figures in his life. As a child in Hamburg, N.Y., Toles was obsessed with Barrie's Peter Pan. It was the first play he ever directed at the age of 10.

"Peter Pan began everything for me theatrically," he says.

As for Hitchcock, he's the filmmaker Toles reveres above all others.

"It is impossible to convey how much Hitchcock means to me -- how often I dream about him," he says. "I have, in fact, dream conversations in which I try out my ideas about his films. Hitchcock either graciously assents, waffles, or flatly opposes me."

The two Toles icons come together in Mary Rose, a supernatural Barrie play that haunted Hitchcock for decades, though his plans to film it went unrealized. At Venue 6 (MTC Warehouse), Toles is directing a seven-member cast in Mary Rose, the story of a child who vanishes while visiting a mysterious Scottish island, only to reappear days later with no memory of being gone.

Later, as the immature mother of a young son, Mary Rose revisits the island, this time disappearing for 18 years. When she returns, she hasn't aged -- echoing Peter Pan -- but her son is an adult, off at war. She dies and haunts the family home, finally meeting her First World War-scarred son in the final scene.

The play is clearly coloured by the death of Barrie's older brother at the age of 13, a loss from which their mother never recovered. "In some ways, it's an inverse Peter Pan," Toles says. "It's all about the people left behind."

Hitchcock saw Mary Rose as a young man in its original 1920 London production. "He was overwhelmed by it," says Toles. "It meant so much to him. It had a profound influence on Vertigo and Rebecca."

In the 1960s, Hitchcock commissioned a Mary Rose screenplay. But his studio, disappointed with the box-office returns for 1964's Marnie, wouldn't back the project.

For the fringe show, Toles has used Barrie's play -- edited to 80 minutes -- enhanced with some elements from the unproduced screenplay and Hitch's vision for shooting it.

"At times it has felt like a Hitchcock séance," he says about the production.

Thomas Toles, the professor's 20-year-old son, plays Mary Rose's son. Toles's relationship with his elderly mother, who still lives in the house where he was raised, also plays a part in the show's "autobiographical convergence," he says.

"It's an amnesiac play, as well. My mother is in mid-to-late dementia. So this issue of recognition and identity, of losing a sense of yourself as mother and person, but still being there in an ever-more-ghostly fashion, is front-and-centre in my psyche now."

The forthcoming Maddin/Toles film about a family of gangsters, Keyhole, and the new Terrence Malick family drama The Tree of Life are also swirling in his mind. Maddin and Malick both have lives shadowed by the loss of a brother to suicide, Toles notes, and their films have some parallels.

"Both are, in a way, a narrative of a house, and somewhat connected to the themes of Mary Rose."

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2011 D3

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