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All shook up

The King causes a commotion in local playwright's comedy/drama about family

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/3/2011 (2364 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

SHARON Bajer was a kid in elementary school when the King went to his Graceland in the hereafter.

"I always thought of him as the fat, cheesy, Vegas Elvis," says the wellknown Winnipeg actor and playwright.

The King causes a commotion in local playwright’s comedy/drama about family

The King causes a commotion in local playwright’s comedy/drama about family

But Bajer's mom, who was a teenager in the 1950s, knew the Mississippi- born icon differently.

She was scorched by the young Presley's hunkahunka burnin' magnetism, even though she was from a strict Mennonite household that forbade listening to him.

"My mother always described him as hot stuff," recalls Bajer, 41.

In Burnin' Love, Bajer's song-studded new play that has its world première tonight at Prairie Theatre Exchange, both images of Elvis come to hip-swivelling life. The comedy/drama about family bonds, set in Edmonton in 1979, follows a nurse and single mother named Tina (Miriam Smith) whose teenage daughter, Mary (Chelsea Rankin), is languishing in a coma.

On the night when Tina plans to take Mary off life support, she finds herself in a run-down tiki bar, pouring out her story to a tacky, jumpsuit- clad Elvis impersonator (Richard Waugh).

Meanwhile, the deceased King (Zachary Stevenson) -- depicted in his prime circa 1956 -- communicates with the comatose Mary in a supernatural limbo between life and death.

The play, Bajer says, is partly about coming to terms with the past. The impersonator "has really got a mask on -- this Elvis persona he's been hiding behind. As he gets a sense of who he could be... he starts to shed the wig, the sideburns, the clothes."

The story has a non-linear structure, shifting between flashback scenes, the otherworldly visitations and scenes in the bar. "I want (audiences) to go, 'That was a simple story, told in a very theatrical way,'" the playwright says.

Many Winnipeggers know Bajer for acting in productions such as last season's Top Girls and

Steel Magnolias. But she has been writing for a decade. Her first full-length play, Molly's Veil (2005), was successful enough to receive three additional Canadian productions after opening at PTE. Bajer acted in one of those, and says she'd like to take a crack at playing Tina if Burnin' Love lives on.

The new play, she says, grew out of "seeds of truth" from her own family. Her mother, a nurse whose surname was Penner, grew up in Rosemary, Alta., a town strictly divided into Mennonites and Mormons. She fell in love with "the town Elvis," an ultra-cool Mormon who drove a convertible.

The forbidden romance eventually ended.

Bajer's mom fled the town and shunned her Mennonite roots.

Bajer, raised in British Columbia, had no religious upbringing. But from a young age she craved membership in some sort of congregation or tribe -- a yearning she has given to Mary in Burnin' Love.

"When I was in about Grade 3 I joined a Mennonite church, because I wanted to find out what that was," Bajer remembers. "I was always exploring different organizations. I would have been a perfect candidate to join a cult... "Then," she says, bursting into laughter, "I finally found theatre! It was really neat moving here (20 years ago) and meeting other actors who are Mennonites."

The past year has been hectic for Bajer, fellow actor Carson Nattrass and their toddler son. The Wolseley residents got married last March, then Nattrass headed to Toronto to appear in the musical Rock of Ages for the rest of 2010.

From May to August, Bajer participated in a prestigious new workshop in classical directing at Ontario's Stratford Festival. She's been invited back and leaves this month for a second stint at Stratford, where she'll assistant-direct Richard III.

Bajer, who had never directed classical theatre before the Stratford gig, has been thrilled with the experience. Still, she says, one of the best parts of being just the playwright is seeing how a designer can conjure up a setting from a few words.

When she penned "Hawaiian theme bar" in her script, she had in mind a lounge that sounds similar to Winnipeg's kitschy, long-defunct Beachcomber on Carlton Street.

"It was a place that I used to go when I was 16 -- a place in New Westminster (B.C.) called The Tiki Hut. We used to go there for girlfriends' birthday parties because they would serve us drinks underage."

Bajer was stunned when she saw Brian Perchaluk's set. He had captured every cheesy detail perfectly -- thatch-roofed bar, bamboo-look panelling, palm trees, a fake tiki idol, coconut shells for drinks.

"I couldn't believe it," she says. "It just took me right back."

The sincerest form of flattery

A VICTORIA newspaper recently dubbed Zachary Stevenson "a dead ringer for dead singers."

The 30-year-old vocalist, instrumentalist and actor who embodies the youthful spirit of Elvis in Burnin' Love has fallen into a niche portraying deceased entertainers.

Stevenson, who divides his time between Toronto and Vancouver, started his career performing a one-man portrait of protest singer Phil Ochs. He went on to star in The Buddy Holly Story in five Canadian cities and assume a country persona for Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave.

He was at PTE earlier this season as the lead guitarist in Back to You: The Life and Music of Lucille Starr. This summer, he'll work up his keyboard pounding for a character based on Jerry Lee Lewis.

To prepare for Burnin' Love, on which he also serves as music director, Stevenson watched Love Me Tender and Jailhouse Rock

and studied the King in concert on YouTube.

Stevenson is slicking back his real hair and gets to wear a heavenly silver costume. "It's a takeoff on his famous gold-lamé suit. It's so funny: you put that thing on, and you can't help but move like Elvis. You feel the rhythm in your body. He was so loose and improvisational with his moves."

Stevenson says he wants to avoid caricature. "I don't want to overdo things like the sneer. I think the keys are the looseness in the upper body, and of course the hips.

"Also, it's his carefree sense of humour.

People have the perception that the sneer is this bad-ass thing. More often than that, he's kind of laughing at himself."

-- Alison Mayes


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