The Four Tellers
Review by Sean McQuaid
Growing up "down east" on PEI, live theatre wasn't exactly ubiquitous. Apart from school plays and the occasional cultural expedition to darkest Charlottetown, most of my early theatrical memories were made at the historic Kings Playhouse where shows like Dracula warped my impressionable young mind and helped instill a lasting enthusiasm for the stage.
I've returned to the Playhouse on occasion, but not as often as I'd like in recent years; so when The Four Tellers launched their new season there, it was a welcome chance to revisit one of my favourite theatres as well as some favourite performers.
Those favourites include folklorist David Weale and fiddling genius Roy Johnstone, the duo who arguably kickstarted PEI's whole modern theatrical storytelling industry over two decades ago with their seminal A Long Way from the Road stage show, so there's a nice symmetry seeing them in the latest of that show's many descendants.
The last time I saw Weale perform at the Playhouse over a decade ago, it was a stripped-down one-man show, just him and a stool and a stack of stories. That worked, but so does the very different The Four Tellers production, a colourful and sometimes raucous ensemble of four storytellers (Weale, Alan Buchanan, Gary Evans and Dennis King) backed by two musicians (Johnstone and guitarist/vocalist Steve Sharratt).
The set's backdrop is a segmented map of PEI, and its core is a kitchen table where the four storytellers gather as they take turns spinning their respective tales — some of them personal (like the illuminating "Who's Your Father?" round robin introductory segment about their parents), others culled from history, legend or lifted from fellow storytellers like the late, great Frank Ledwell; as the Tellers themselves admit, a little creative larceny is a hallmark of their craft.
The musicians, the kitchen table set and the laughing, joking, casually conversational interplay among the four storytellers combine to feel like one big kitchen party, though the show also shifts gears and tones to create moments of seriousness, sentiment or fancier stagecraft as needed. Most of the production is comedy, funny stories told by funny people, but it's also profound or moving or both by times.
The musical content is a nice bonus in a show that's mostly billed as a talk-fest. The solid Johnstone-Sharratt combo also starts the evening on a fun note with jazzy interpretations of classic tunes like "Summertime" and "Blue Skies" well before the show begins, so audience members who show up early enough for this pre-show set are in for a treat.
The stories are the main meat of the evening, however, and the titular tellers serve them up with style. Any occasional glitches in delivery — a verbal stumble here, a pacing issue there (King in particular seems a bit rushed at first before finding his rhythm) — only bolster the show's appealing sense of spontaneity and playful informality, especially since the tellers are quick to laugh at themselves and each other. The Four Tellers always seem to be having fun, and it's infectious.