Besides the production itself, there are two fascinating things about Markham Little Theatre’s choice of show, The Night of January 16th, for its second offering this season.
The first is that it is written by the enigmatic libertarian icon, Ayn Rand. The second is that it’s an example of interactive theatre, where the audience becomes part of show.
First and foremost, MLT has assembled a group of local theatre mainstays, with a few newcomers, to handle the task of bringing The Night if January 16th to life. Director John Sellens, producer Judy Atherton, and stage manager Sarah McDonald find themselves leading the largest team in a good long while for a MLT show.
“We have a cast of 15,” explains Sellens. “Some MLT veterans and some new to the club.”
Audiences with a discerning eye will be able to pick out several people who have acted with the company in the past. Jessica Ducharme, Julia Guthrie, Judi Cragg and John Featherston all take leading roles. However, the variety in the size of other parts has allowed MLT to cast some actors who are relatively new to the Markham stage or who are MLT members normally involved as backstage crew.
“What’s great in this play, though,” says McDonald “is realizing that every character, no matter how long they appear on stage, holds an important piece to the puzzle.”
What puzzle? At its core, The Night of January 16th is a courtroom mystery play. The court hears the case of Karen Andre, the former secretary and lover of businessman Bjorn Faulkner. She has been of accused of his murder. The audience does not see the events of the crime. They are only privy to the courtroom drama. This is where one of the aforementioned fascinating elements come in. The show and story features its audience as jurors.
Of course, the very notion of immersive or interactive theatre can make some theatre goers uncomfortable. The idea of being conscripted to be part of someone else’s entertainment is rightfully terrifying to many. Getting a show unique to one’s own perspective can be wonderful; being subject to another’s perspective is not.
Productions like Sleep No More in New York City and Toronto’s Brantwood have earned accolades from audiences and critics alike; but most importantly they seem to have learned the lesson that audience members, even when “immersed”, like to remain observers rather than become forced actors.
Rest assured that The Night of January 16th shares DNA with these well-loved pieces. One can argue that it inspired them, and doesn’t require any such audience discomfort. It is widely considered to be the earliest example of this type of, engaging but not intrusive, interactive theatre.
“This show allows the audience to become a part of the show and makes for interesting discussions during intermission,” explains Atherton. “MLT has a very loyal following, and I think that many will enjoy this unique aspect of this play.”
“At its heart, it’s a good murder mystery with interesting characters, and multiple possible suspects,” adds Sellens. “But it also tells a bigger story, of the individual, the power (or control) of love, a father and a daughter, unrequited love, and, if you’re so inclined, objectivism.”
Sellens is referring to the other, aforementioned, fascinating aspect of this show; Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Rand wrote the play as an exploration of her beliefs. Specifically, as a way to test a conflict between individualism and conformity. The audience’s verdict reveals which perspective was preferred that evening.
Toward the ending of the show the verdict, as decided by the audience, is revealed. What follows is a conclusion that depends on the audience’s choice.
“I think Night of January 16th will be especially interesting as it fits so well with Ayn Rand’s other work,” explains Sellens. “The themes in this play also appear in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.”
It’s important to note that these ideas are not central to the story or the enjoyment of it. In fact, since the play’s debut in 1935, they have generally been hard to identify until you learn about Rand herself.
“The play is a tale of lies, salacious gossip, love, and betrayal,” says McDonald. “Those themes have always been prevalent in society. And who doesn’t like a good murder mystery?”
Markham Little Theatre presents The Night of January 16th by Ayn Rand at Flato Markham Theatre November 20-23, 2019.
Visit flatomarkhamtheatre.ca for more details.
Photo: The cast of The Night of January 16th.