An onstage exploration of death led to some significant behind-the-scenes beginnings for performers Kate Braidwood and Andrew Phoenix.
The two met at California’s Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre and became much more than classmates when they teamed up to create the end-of-life comedy Grim and Fischer. They began dating, got married and, in 2009, co-founded their very own Portland-based theatre company called Wonderheads.
Local theatregoers may recall Grim and Fischer from the 2011 Vancouver International Fringe Festival. Among other accolades, it won the Cultchivating the Fringe Award, allowing it to return for an encore run at The Cultch Jan. 3 to 13.
Performed without dialogue, and featuring Wonderheads’ signature full-faced masks, the story centres on Mrs. Fischer, a feisty older woman holding white-knuckled onto life.
“It’s quite literally a cat and mouse kind of cartoon chase between the character, Death, and this tenacious grandmother,” says Braidwood, originally from Maple Ridge.
Before joining forces on Grim and Fischer, Braidwood had watched her grandparents age and move into care homes, and Phoenix had recently dealt with death in his family. Those experiences resulted in wanting to examine what it means to lose the youthful “veil of invincibility” and face one’s own mortality. Wearing cartoon-like masks allowed them to explore a difficult, and sometimes scary, subject with humour and heart.
Phoenix designed the set and is the actor beneath the oblong Grim Reaper mask, while Braidwood plays the stubborn Mrs. Fischer. She is also in charge of sound design and creates the oversized papier-mâché masks worn in all Wonderheads shows. (Their production history includes the live-action short Winston’s Last Puzzle and Loon, which toured last summer.)
The headpieces are a more complex, colourful and expressive interpretation of traditional European larval masks. Braidwood says she usually incorporates two emotional states into every character’s face, which can then be angled to express different feelings.
“For instance, I wanted Mrs. Fischer to have sort of a side smile, a twinkle in her eye,” she says, “but I also wanted her to be vulnerable, so an aspect of worry or fear.”
Without dialogue, the performers rely on physical acting to tell the story. And that can be challenging with an oversized mask to contend with.
“There’s no peripheral vision, so we really have to be aware of what the other performer is doing, and we have to be aware of the edge of the stage so we don’t fall off,” Braidwood says.
The universal themes of aging and death make Grim and Fischer accessible to a wide audience, Phoenix says. And the crowd should be prepared for both absurd humour and earnest heartbreak.
“At one moment, I want them to be laughing at a fart joke, and the next moment crying because of how touched they are,” Phoenix says. “We’re not stuck in one genre or the other. It’s not just the drama or the comedy, it’s definitely both.”