Stage Door Review

Chase the Ace

Monday, August 16, 2021

✭✭✭✭✩

by Mark Crawford, directed by Miles Potter

• Lighthouse Theatre Festival, Lighthouse Theatre Tent, Port Dover

July 23-August 8, 2021;

• Theatre Orangeville, Tent at Mt Alverno Luxury Resorts, Caledon Village

August 11-20, 2021;

• Festival Players of Prince Edward County, BMO Pavilion at The Eddie Hotel, Bloomfield

August 24-29, 2021;

• Blyth Festival, Harvest Stage, Blyth

September 8-19, 2021

Charlie: “It was a time when people lost touch with the truth”

With Chase the Ace Mark Crawford has yet another hit on his hands. Crawford has quickly become one of the most produced comedic playwrights in Canada starting with his first play Stag and Doe in 2014 up through The New Canadian Curling Club in 2018. It is a measure of Crawford’s popularity that his latest play should receive a rolling world premiere from four theatre festivals this summer. At the first of these, the Lighthouse Theatre Festival in Port Dover, the play sold out its entire run to donors and subscribers before tickets could go on sale to the general public. Luckily, the public’s faith in Crawford’s comedic talents both as playwright and actor are fully justified and are on vivid display in Chase the Ace, a solo play in which Crawford plays at least 17 characters including the voice of his GPS system.

The story begins with the central character Charlie hanging onto a bridge while someone standing above him wishes he would just die. This sounds like a bad dream but this is a real event in Charlie’s life and he tells us the tale of how he got to this point.

We flash back to when Charlie King had just gotten fired from his radio job in big Ontario city. He was caught on live radio confronting his wife for having an affair with the other co-host of his show. Now no local station will hire him. Luckily, however, he finds that a tiny radio station in the fictional Ontario town of Port Belette had just posted an opening due to the death of the station manager. Charlie needs the money and needs to get out of the big city and so takes the job. This is in early 2020 when Covid was still thought to be simply a type a flu that would be gone by Easter.

When Covid deaths occur at the local nursing home, Charlie begins to see what the town is really like. The manager of the home refuses to give him an interview. The mayor of the town berates him for reporting news that could negatively impact Port Belette’s tourism industry and wants him to stop. Denise, a long-time Port Belette resident and Charlie’s only co-worker at the radio station hints that there are dark dealings in local politics.

To help the nursing home and incidentally to boost the town’s image, a member of the town council suggests holding a “chase the ace” lottery. In this type of lottery, which has only begun to gain in popularity since 2013, the organizers keep 50% which here is given to the nursing home, the winner of the weekly lottery takes 20% and the remaining 30% goes into the jackpot. The weekly winner has the chance to draw a card from a deck of cards and if the person draws the ace of spades then they can claim the accumulated jackpot. The card drawn is cut or torn in half, so that the odds of drawing the ace become larger every week.

Charlie has the brilliant idea of broadcasting the lottery draw live on the radio. This not only boosts the radio’s sagging ratings but smooths things over between Charlie and the Mayor. Nevertheless, Charlie begins receiving anonymous texts that something is suspicious with how the lottery is run and Denise agrees. What began as the tale of a big city outsider not fitting into rural life as in Dan Needles’s acclaimed Wingfield heptalogy soon turns into a mystery that becomes increasingly murkier and more dangerous until Charlie is indeed hanging onto a bridge for dear life.

The play is hugely enjoyable in more ways than I can list. First of all, there is the sheer pleasure of Crawford’s performance. He depicts Charlie’s anger, disappointment and exasperation at having to take up a junk job at some Podunk outpost with great humour. He simultaneously shows how Charlie gradually begins to understand that he does have a positive role to play and that bringing the truth to light is important no matter where you live.

Allied to this pleasure is Crawford’s ability to shift instantly from character to character with just a change of pose and change of voice. The most endearing of the approximately 17 characters is Charlie’s co-worker Denise. At first Crawford, adopting a piercing tone, makes her seem irredeemably scatterbrained and too comically quirky to be reliable. Yet, as the action become more serious, Denise’s extensive knowledge of town politics becomes invaluable and so does her belief in Charlie when he loses faith in himself. Denise builds him up and shows us that she has an inner strength that we, like Charlie, were too blind to see.

The height of Crawford’s ability to shape-shift and yet keep his narrative absolutely clear comes in is rendition of the town council’s first Covid-imposed Zoom meeting. Of course, someone doesn’t know how to log on properly. Of course, someone holding forth doesn’t know his audio is off. What Charlie calls the worst episode of Hollywood Squares ever becomes the show’s most unforgettable set-piece.

Besides extraordinary ability as an actor is Crawford’s ability as a storyteller. This, like all of his plays for adults (I haven’t seen his children’s play), have strong, carefully managed plots that come off as both natural and meticulously planned at once. That is especially the case with Chase the Ace. What draws you in as much as the apt comedic commentary on Covid, small towns and bruised egos is Crawford’s masterly spinning out an ever more intriguing mystery. Yet, Crawford is able to keep the comedy and the mystery in perfect balance while pointing out how the rise of Covid was also accompanied by a decay in public trust in the truth.

Chase the Ace will no doubt become Crawford’s one-man show calling card just as his warmly funny two-man show Bed and Breakfast (2015) was for him and his partner Paul Dunn. Denise hints to Charlie that there are more mysteries to uncover in Port Belette. Crawford has so fully created an entire town and its citizens that it is easy imagine an entire series set in Port Belette that explains why the French named the place after the weasel. If you can’t catch the show in Caledon (as part of Theatre Orangeville’s summer season), stops at the Blyth Festival and in Prince Edward County are still to come. You won’t want to miss this ideal return to live theatre.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Mark Crawford in Chase the Ace. © 2021 Ann Baggeley.

For Theatre Orangeville tickets visit www.theatreorangeville.ca.

For Blyth Festival tickets visit blythfestival.com.

For Festival Players of PEC tickets visit www.festivalplayers.ca.