Arts Theatre

Playing with Fire transcends hockey

A lively sports story //  Epic Photography
A lively sports story // Epic Photography

The bar for sports drama has been set a little higher with the Citadel’s breathless, lively hockey show, Playing with Fire: The Theo Fleury Story.

Based on Kirstie McLellan Day’s 2009 biography of NHL star Theoren Fleury, the script takes us through Fleury’s life from his troubled, dysfunctional childhood in small-town Manitoba to his immediately illustrious NHL career and then inescapable slide into a long-term battle with drugs and alcohol. It’s quite surprising just how engaging this play is for someone who isn’t anything close to a hockey or sports fan. (This reviewer certainly included.)

Much of this is undoubtedly due to performer Shaun Smyth, who is a dynamite force on stage. Director Ron Jenkins keeps Smyth at an unrelenting pace, skating tight circles and taking shots on a rink that has been dropped into the Maclab, complete with a faux-ice surface that fools quite well for the real thing (minus the toe-numbing necessity of refrigeration). Smyth is fervently, fully committed to the challenge, capturing Fleury’s casual, hilarious crassness in a breakneck, full-throttle performance.

The ugly spectre of Fleury’s sexual abuse by Western Hockey League coach Graham James is the story’s pivot; the audience knew about it going in and there was indeed tension leading up to that part—which Smyth deflates with blunt frankness and rueful self-awareness, refreshing for its lack of pretence and still managing to treat the subject with dignity.

At times, Playing with Fire falls into the common pitfall of hyperbole that marks so many sports narratives: everything is presented as extremes; it’s either the highest of highs or the lowest of lows. This gets a bit tedious by the end, but nonetheless the script, McLellan Day’s first, has obviously been finessed quite a bit with the help of both Jenkins and Alberta Theatre Projects.

There’s a dearth of sports stories on the stage; perhaps we still can’t overcome the pervasive (if often untrue) divide between the jocks and the art kids. Playing with Fire is a prime candidate for changing everyone’s mind: staunch theatregoers need not worry about being alienated by obscure sports references or dull statistics, and I’m betting hockey fans would have a much better time at this show than taking in another dismal performance by our actual team—even if it does require setting your eyes on a Calgary Flames jersey in Edmonton.

Until Sun, Feb 15 (7:30 pm)
Directed by Ron Jenkins
Citadel Theatre, $35 – $89

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