Perfect storm of talents sets stage for Wild Honey

Phoenix offers Frayn adaptation of Chekhov to Feb. 20.

Anna Petrovna (Arielle Permack) tries to cheer up Platonov (Jack Hayes) with plans for the future

The joy of teaching first-year arts students is you see them early and watch them grow and progress and change and mature and become who they’re meant to be.

Peter McGuire, a teaching assistant professor in the theatre department at the University of Victoria, even volunteers for convocation ceremonies just to watch those students cross the stage.

Working with first-year students in a tight program such as theatre also puts him in a prime place to pick the productions to stage.

A little over a year ago he decided it was time for Wild Honey.

“I realized we had the right mix of students to do it,” the director said. “Sometimes you see a cohort come in and there’s just something about a group … you can spot certain talent, ability, gifts, combinations of people (and) also the gender mix.

“All the right things came together.”

Wild Honey is a 1984 Michael Frayn adaptation of an earlier play by Anton Chekhov.

“It’s classic work, it’s the gold standard of playwrights,” McGuire said of Chekhov. “It’s strong, it’s funny, it’s very well written. We’re enjoying his work more and more every day. We’re finding wonderful subtle clues in his writing.”

Wild Honey delves into the intricacies of love and the human condition via the charming but roguish main character Platonov – a schoolteacher and pseudo-philosopher who has a way with women.

When the village welcomes home the socialite and widow Anna Petrovna with a get-together on her country estate, the festivities get out of hand and everyone starts playing elaborate games of romantic cat-and-mouse, resulting in multitudinous love triangles.

“It’s the kind of play where young people can play these (older) characters, but it’s within their range, their intellectual and emotional range,” McGuire said.

Some will find it odd to see a younger person acting as an older one, but he’s confident they can capture the spirit.

While it’s set in the 1900s there’s a nod to the mid-1970s in the production.

“We’ve mashed it up a little bit and it’s been exciting for Graham (McMonagle, costume designer),” McGuire said. McMonagle returns to UVic for an MFA in costume design after a successful career as a professional ballet dancer.

McGuire also enjoys working with the students, on stage and off, in varying roles. For example, Dallas Ashby, set designer for Wild Honey, acted under his direction two years ago in Picnic.

“I get to work with her in a different way,” he said.

“It’s a big-scale show,” he added. “She’s got the full sandbox to play in. It’s given her scope as a designer.”

With a nod to rural Russian architecture, graduating fifth-year student Ashby offers lush but rugged portrayals of estate gardens, an old schoolhouse and birch forests.

The lighting design is created by a former colleague from the professional days, Michael Whitfield, an original student in the theatre department

“He’s had an illustrious career around the world,” McGuire said.

Whitfield – resident lighting designer for Stratford Festival for more than 25 years and now a sessional UVic instructor –  created a lighting design that highlights those birch creating shadows for clandestine activity.

“It’s great for our students to witness that (returning of almni). They see the legacy, the history, the passing of the torch in many ways,” McGuire said. “They get to witness the fact that you can … go on to have a full, rich, rewarding career in the arts.”

University of Victoria’s Phoenix Theatre presents Wild Honey from Feb. 11 to 20.

“It’s about human relationships and anyone in the audience will recognize themselves on that stage – young love, old love, unrequited love, heartbreak,” McGuire said.

Tickets range from $15 to $25. Call the Phoenix Box Office 250- 721-8000.