Stories by Alice Munro Brought to Life on Toronto Stage with a Fresh Interpretation

Today was the first time I had ever heard the name Alice Munro after being invited to see a theatrical performance of some of her work. In my preparation for what was the unknown, I ended up going on Google to try and learn more about her. I found out she is both a celebrated and popular Canadian author who has mastered writing short-stories. She is also the 2013 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature; pretty impressive accomplishment when you consider this award has only been given to novelists. Munro’s managed to have produced 14 short-story collections published starting from 1968 with “Dance of the Happy Shades” and as late as 2012 with “Dear Life”. Her other works include “The Moons of Jupiter” (1982), “Open Secrets” (1994) and “Runaway” (2004).

The talented short-story master, Alice Munro
The talented short-story master, Alice Munro

So how do you pay homage to the stellar work of such a prolific storyteller? You allow Word for Word (a program of Z Space) to perform some of Alice Munro’s work, well “word for word”. It’s an interesting approach to bringing a story to life as there is no involvement of an adaptation for the theatrical presentation; rather there’s a delivery that takes your mind 10 or 15 minutes to wrap itself around. It feels a lot like reading a story aloud while doing all the voices and emotions of each character on your own, only they manage to do it a hundred times better. I’ll admit that at first I just imagined some people sitting on stools reading excerpts from a book.

The experience itself really feels like actors playing narrators playing actors. In two of Alice Munro’s short-stories, “The Office” and “Dolly” directed by Joel Mullennix, the audience gets introduced to several characters all played by five very talented performers that includes:

  • Sheila Balter
  • Jeri Lynn Cohen
  • Susan Harloe
  • Paul Finnocchiaro
  • Haword Swain

There are instances when the role of ensemble is rotated and these actors take on at least two or three roles with ease. This could mean playing a mannequin in a storefront display to then transitioning into a waitress at a local restaurant.

Actors Paul Finocchiaro and Jeri Lynn Cohen in a promotional photograph for "The Office"
Actors Paul Finocchiaro and Jeri Lynn Cohen in a promotional photograph for “The Office”

There’s something indescribable when you watch both stories come alive before your very eyes, as each actor takes turn delivering word for word Alice’s writings. The precision of how each character moves through changing not only wardrobe, but also the simple props on stage is worthy of note. There’s a certain dance that seems to take place as both actors and props glide in and out of each scene. The believability is so intense that even a wooden bench is convincing as a motor vehicle. It’s a solid intimate and awe-inspiring two hours that goes by rather quickly, which means you’ll be having fun.

My best tip would definitely be to stick around for the Q&A that immediately follows the performance. It’s a fantastic opportunity to hear stories and commentary from Munro’s publisher and from the Word for Word cast members themselves. If I had to rate the overall experience on a scale of 1 to 10 (highest), I’d give it an eight (8). Kudos to the production team!

Actress Susan Harloe (in the foreground) is the co-founder and co-artistic director of Word for Word
Actress Susan Harloe (in the foreground) is the co-founder and co-artistic director of Word for Word

“Stories by Alice Munro” runs for four nights only, during April 16th to April 19th at the Isabel Bader Theatre, downtown on the campus of the University of Toronto, 93 Charles Street West (on South side). The play is an exclusive Toronto engagement brought to you by Sara Schwartz Geller Productions. There’s only two nights left April 18 SAT 8pm and April 19 SUN 2pm and 7pm. Grab your single or group rate tickets (via UofTtix) and some friends, sit back and relax and get ready to be transported on quite an interesting literary journey.