All posts by Edward Staskus

Edward Staskus is a free-lance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio, on the north of the Rocky River valley.

Born on the Barachois

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“Everybody went to church back then,” said Connie Lott. “Especially in a small community like South Rustico. My goodness, we all went. I just walked up the road from home to the church and the school. It was the same way we walked to the beach and went swimming.”

Walking to the beach was easy. There is ocean to see and wade into on three sides of the school and church.

There were four classrooms to the school and eleven grades, overseen by the Sisters of Notre Dame. Many of the nuns came from the Magdalen Islands, an archipelago not far away in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “They were one hundred percent French,” said Robin Lott. “Connie’s French is fluid to this day.”

“He means fluent,” said Connie.

“My teachers were Mother Saint Alphonse, Mother Saint Theodore, and Mother Saint Cyril, who was sort of icky,” she said, almost seven decades later. “Kids came to our school from all over, from Hope River and Oyster Bed Bridge.”

South Rustico is on the north-central shore of Canada’s Prince Edward Island, where Route 6 and Church Road cross. The Lion’s Club, caty-corner to the church, hosts ceilidhs featuring local talent in the summer. There is a handsome beach on Luke’s Creek, which is a bay on the far shoreline, near the National Park.

“I went to mass once twice in twelve hours,” said Robin, Connie’s husband. “We were dating, I was on the island, and her mother insisted we go to church Saturday night before stepping out. So, OK, that’s it, we go. Sunday morning they wake me up and say it’s time to go to church again. I said, what? I thought, I must be desperate for a girlfriend!”

“You must have really liked me,” said Connie.

Built in 1838, the oldest Catholic Church on PEI, St. Augustine’s in South Rustico was already an old church when Cornelia ‘Connie’ Doucette and Robert ‘Robin’ Lott got married there in 1960.

“Our wedding party was in Connie’s yard,” said Robin “The barn was behind the house and they brewed homemade beer. We didn’t have five cents to rub together.”

Connie Doucette was born at home in 1938. “I lived in what is now the Barachois Inn on the Church Road,” she said. A barachois is like a bayou, what Atlantic Canadians call a coastal lagoon separated from the ocean by a sandbar. But the home she grew up in wasn’t where she was born, nor were her parents the parents she was born to.

“When my twin sister and I were born, our mother died,” she said.

Her father, Jovite Doucette, a farmer with eight children, owned a house behind the church and croplands between Anglo Rustico and the red sand shore. “Where the new school was built,” said Connie, “that was once part of his fields.” Suddenly a widower, he was unable to care for the newborns of the family.

Cornelia and her sister, Camilla, were placed with foster families. Her sister went to Mt. Carmel, on the southwest side of the island, while she became a permanent ward of the Doucette’s, a husband and wife in their 50s, who lived down the street, literally down the street, on the front side of the church.

“It wasn’t traumatic,” said Connie. “I saw my brothers and sisters, and my father, all the time, and my foster parents made sure I saw my twin sister now and then.”

The Doucette’s she went to live with were islanders who had long worked in Boston as domestics, saved their money, and returned to Prince Edward Island, buying a house and farm. They kept cows and some horses. The Doucette’s were childless, and despite the surname, no relation to Connie’s family.

“I was spoiled since I was their only child,” said Connie “They were older and well-to-do. We had a car, a Ford. I didn’t do too much, although I might have milked a cow once in awhile.”

Before mid-century most of the roads on Prince Edward Island were dirt or clay, muddy when it rained, dusty when it was dry. The first paved road, two miles of it, was University Avenue in Charlottetown, the capital, in 1930. “They eventually paved the road up to the church,” said Connie. “We used to say, ‘Meet me at the pave,’ which was where the pavement ended.”

“Our generation, their children have built modern homes on the island, it’s not as basic as it used to be,” said Robin.

“Everybody’s got washers and dryers now,” said Connie.

Her mother’s sister washed clothes by hand in a washtub and dried them on the line. “We visited them in the late 1960s,” said Robin. “Their house didn’t have running water or electricity. I went out to the well and pulled the bucket up. There was meat and butter in the bucket.”

“That was their refrigeration,” said Connie.

“They finally moved across the road to an old schoolhouse that had power,” said Robin.

“They had thirteen children,” said Connie.

Although he was born in Quebec in 1936, Robin grew up in Ontario.

“My father worked on the boats all the time, Montreal to Thorold, where the locks are, and we ultimately moved there,” he said. From Montreal the passage is down the St. Lawrence and across the length of Lake Ontario to Niagara. The Welland Canal at Thorold, sitting atop the Niagara Escarpment, is ‘Where the Ships Climb the Mountain.’ Standing on viewing platforms, you can watch enormous cargo ships pass slowly by at eye-level a few feet away from you.

When he came of age Robin Lott joined the Royal Canadian Navy.

In the Second World War the Canadian Navy was the fifth-largest in the world. During the Cold War of the 1950s and 60s it countered emerging Soviet Union naval threats in the Atlantic with its anti-submarine capabilities. “We were off the coast of Portugal when my mother telegraphed me that she and Connie had decided I was going to get married,” said Robin.

The executive order said to be ready in October.

Robin and Connie met when she went to nursing school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Robin was stationed with the fleet. “I was working a little job at the Charlottetown Hospital,” said Connie. “A friend of mine told me about the nursing course in Halifax. Right away I got the bug.” It was 1956. She and her friend enrolled and her friend’s father drove them to Nova Scotia.

After nursing school, as part of her scholarship agreement, she worked at the Sunnybrook Military Hospital in Toronto. “They gave you $70.00 a month to live on.” She and Robin dated long-distance style. “Whenever I got leave I would pick her up in Toronto and take her to visit with my parents in Thorold,” said Robin. “That’s how I introduced her to my family.”

At the same time, Connie was introducing Robin to Prince Edward Island

One afternoon, making his way from Halifax to Rustico, coming off the ferry in January and driving up Route 13 from Crapaud, he was stopped by a snowdrift in the road.

“The road went down a valley and there was literally six feet of snow piled up,” said Robin. He reversed his 1955 Pontiac back to where his rear tires could get a grip on a stretch of clear road. “I hit the gas as hard as I could, went as fast as I could, hit the snow, everything disappeared, and I came out the other side. By the time I did the car was barely moving.”

Commuting between Nova Scotia and PEI, Robin rode the Abeigweit. Before the Confederation Bridge opened in 1997, the ferry was one of the busiest in Canada, the island’s lifeline to the mainland. Commissioned in 1947, ‘Abby’ was in its time the most powerful icebreaker in the world, capable of carrying almost a thousand passengers and sixty cars, or a train of 16 passenger cars. Its eight main engines drove propellers both bow and stern.

“I used to take the ferry across when we were dating,” said Robin. “You had to sleep in your car if you missed the last one. We would be lined up single file down the road, there were no parking areas back then, a hundred cars inching along trying to get on the first boat in the morning.”

In the dead of winter, crossing the Northumberland Straight from Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, to Port Borden, Robin Lott stood bundled up against the cold wind hands stuck in mittens leaning over the bow watching ahead as the heavy boat broke through foot-thick ice.

“It would crunch gigantic pieces of ice and turn them over like ice cubes as it went across,” he said.

After they married the Lott’s didn’t stay on Prince Edward Island. “Both of the family farms were no longer farming,” said Robin. “I had an offer to partner in a fishing boat, but I didn’t take that up.” They moved to St. Catharine’s, the largest city in Canada’s Niagara Region, not far from Thorold. They rented an apartment and got busy.

By the time Connie was pregnant with the second of their four children they had bought a bungalow with a 185-foot deep backyard, near Brock University. “We had plans about moving, but we had a low mortgage on this house, so we never did,” said Robin.

They still live in the same house fifty-five years later.

“Those days we used to all climb in our station wagon on a Friday payday and go to the grocery store,” said Robin. There was a meat packing plant in the city and an adjacent store called Meatland. “They sold hot dogs in three-pound bulk bags.”

It’s been said you know you’re from St. Catharine’s if you know the difference between Welland and Wellandport, were in the Pied Piper Parade at some time in your childhood, ate fish and chips at the north corner of the Linwell Plaza, can drive through downtown without getting confused, pissed in the Lancaster Pool, hate Niagara Falls, and bought cold cuts at Meatland.

“When we went on holiday we took our four children and went camping,” said Connie. “We had a hard top tent. We went all over, as far south as the Teton Mountains near Yellowstone Park and as far north as Peace River.”

It is almost two thousand miles from St. Catharine’s to Peace River, and another forty miles to Girouxville. Towing their hard top trailer, their four children in tow, the family piled into their station wagon to visit Connie’s four uncles living there. Her natural father’s brothers had all long since moved from Prince Edward Island to Alberta.

The Peace River valley’s rich soil has produced abundant wheat crops since the 19th century. The town of Peace River, at the confluence of three rivers and a creek, is sometimes called ‘The Land of Twelve-Foot Davis.’ Henry Davis was a gold prospector who built a trading post in Peace River after he made a fortune on a tiny twelve-foot square land claim. After his death a 12-foot statue of him was erected at Riverfront Park.

“It was one of the highlights of our trip,” said Robin, about their excursion out west in 1976.

Girouxville is a small French-Canadian community surrounded by enormous farms. A hundred years ago the local Cree Indians called it ‘Frenchman’s Land.’ Every four years Chinook Days are celebrated. Besides farming, there are thousands of beehives, hunting for elk and moose, and good fishing on the Little Smoky River,

“Three of the brothers homesteaded, the three stronger ones,” said Robin. “In those years you could go up there, it was all bush, and if you cleared the land and farmed it, it was yours. They pulled out stumps and ended up with farms so big they weren’t described by acre, but by section.” Spring, durum, and winter wheat are grown on almost 7 million acres in Alberta. The average farm size is close to double the size of farms on PEI.

The fourth Doucette brother became a schoolteacher, opened and operated a store, married, and propagated a large family.

“We pulled into this little town with our trailer and kids,” said Robin. “Then it occurred to us we had no idea where they lived.” Spying the town’s tavern, they parked in front of it. Robin went into the tavern. He told the bartender he was looking for Emile Doucette. The bartender looked at Robin and bobbed his head at a table set along the back wall.

“Why don’t you ask his brother Leo over there,” he said.

“He was a single man, quite a drinker,” said Connie. “What else do you have to do after working all day on a farm? He eventually bought the tavern.”

That night Doucette’s gathered from far and wide for a reunion dinner. “Everybody came, everybody got together,” said Robin. “We talked long into the night and it was still light enough to see.” In northern Alberta in the summer the sun rises at five in the morning and doesn’t set until almost eleven at night.

The night before they left to go back to St. Catherine’s Uncle Leo invited them to his farm.

“We were having a beer when he said he wanted me to go into his bedroom and pull the suitcase out from under his bed,” said Robin.

“Open it up and count out some money for Connie and Camilla,” said Uncle Leo.

“It was full of cash, honest to God,” said Connie. “We just about died.”

“I was nervous, what if somehow or other he thought I had taken one dollar more than he told me to do,” said Robin. “But then on the mantle in his living room I saw checks for crops he had sold, thousands and thousands of dollars, none of them ever cashed.”

Robin and Connie have gone back often to Prince Edward Island, most recently the past summer when they traveled to the island for the marriage of a granddaughter. They enjoy eating the local seafood, especially oysters, mussels, and lobster. At one time they ate as much whitefish as they wanted.

“When we first started coming back here I would go out with friends who were fishermen and it was nothing to hand line 1500 pounds of codfish in the morning,” said Robin. “But that was all shut down thirty years ago.”

“We ate fish, potatoes, carrots, and turnips when I was a girl,” said Connie. “That was about it. Whenever we went to Charlottetown we ate at a Chinese restaurant, but that was as much as I ever knew. Before I came to St. Catharine’s I had never had Italian food. After I married, my cousin and a friend of hers said, we’re coming over to make dinner. We’re going to make spaghetti. I thought, yippee.”

In the years since, the Lott’s have discovered fare across Canada and the United States, in Spain, England, Austria, and Denmark. “I like to travel,” said Connie. “We’re going back to Mexico at the end of the year.”

“It all started when she came to St Catharine’s,” said Robin. “Our community has every nationality you can shake a stick at, Irish, Italians, Russians, because of the construction of the canal system. There are cabbage rolls and pierogies and souvlaki.”

When Connie’s daughter travels to Prince Edward Island on business, she has stayed at the Barachois Inn. “She told me my old house has changed a little bit, one of the rooms now has an en suite bathroom, but it’s still owned by the same people who bought it,” said Connie.

Not much is better than going from one home to another home to family and eating good food. When Robin and Connie Lott are on PEI they sometimes stop at Carr’s Oyster Bar in Stanley Bridge, zigzagging up the coast to the other side of the Rustico lands, and have lunch on the ocean.

“We love seafood,” said Robin. “It’s our heritage,” said Connie. They eat on the sunny open deck overlooking the dark blue water of the New London Bay. The dark water isn’t new. It’s been there a long time.

The being on the seaside, mind’s eye on the barachois, when it’s a living heritage, is like diving into the long-time ocean and being able to see how deep it is. Or it’s kicking back, digging deep right now into a plate of mussels lobsters white fish and raisin pie, watching kids jump off the Stanley Bay bridge into the briny water. It might be both things at once.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

 

Big Ass Bowl

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There is plenty of good better best seafood chowder on Prince Edward Island, since there is plenty of seafood on all sides of the crescent-shaped province. There are cultured mussels and lean white halibut and wild-caught lobster. The chowder comes in cups and bowls. Some of the bowls are bigger than others and can be meals in themselves.

There is only one Big Ass Bowl, however.

“We had a large bowl of chowder last year, but I don’t see it on the menu anymore,” said Frank Glass to the young man who was putting glasses of water down on their table.

“We have a really good seafood chowder,” he said, pointing to the menu.

“Is it a big bowl?” asked Frank.

The young man sized up an imaginary bowl with his hands.

“No, the chowder we had was in a bowl about twice that size,” said Frank.

“Oh, you mean the big ass bowl.”

“The what bowl?” asked Vera Glass, sitting across from her husband. They were at a table at one of the windows overlooking the Clyde River. On the far bank the red roof of the PEI Preserve Company, where jams and jellies are made, glowed in the roll-up of dusk.

“That’s what we call it in the kitchen,” the young man said. “We don’t call it that on the menu, obviously. If you want it, I can ask, and I’m sure we can make it for you.”

“You’ll just clear the decks and whip it up, even though it’s not on the menu?” asked Vera.

“Sure,” said the young man.

“Sweet,” she said.

Vera and Frank Glass were at the Mill, a snug as a bug up-to-speed restaurant in New Glasgow on Prince Edward Island.

It is neither a small nor big roadhouse, seating maybe fifty diners, right on the road, on a zigzag of Route 13 as it runs south from coastal Cavendish through New Glasgow to Hunter River. There is a performance space on the second floor and a deli case just inside the front door full of pies and meat pies. The building is blue, two–story, and wide front-porched. It is kitty-corner to the bridge that crosses the snaky river. The Mill describes itself as “carefully sourcing seafood, steaks and entrees served in a rustic yet refined space with scenic views.”

That’s hitting the nail on the head.

It was the night before Hurricane Dorian slammed into PEI, even though it wasn’t a hurricane anymore when it did. It was a post-tropical storm, which is like saying you took it on the chin from a cruiserweight rather than a heavyweight boxer.

“Under the right conditions, post-tropical storms can produce hurricane-strength winds,” said CBC meteorologist Jay Scotland the day after the storm. “Dorian serves as a good example that the difference between a hurricane and a post-tropical storm is more about the storm’s structure and not its intensity.”

On Saturday morning, moving north, it sucked up energy from another weather system moving in from the west. The winds spreading over the island grew to hurricane strength during the day and the storm unrolled over a larger area than Hurricane Juan, the “storm of the century,” had done in 2003.

“Look who’s back,” said Vera, looking over Frank’s shoulder.

“Who?”

“Michelle.”

“Good, maybe she’ll be our waitress.”

“She looks better tonight, not so spaced.”

“Didn’t she have to go home the last time we were here?”

“I think so.”

“Hi, how are you?”

“Good,” said Michelle. “I see you two have made it back again.”

“This is our third time here in three weeks, although we’re leaving for home on Sunday,” said Vera.

“So, you’ll be here for the storm.”

“It looks like it.”

“Where’s home?”

“In Ohio, Lakewood, which is right on the lake, just west of Cleveland,” said Frank. “We get thunderstorms that come across Lake Erie from Canada, but nothing like what we’ve been hearing is going to blow up here in your neck of the woods.”

Hurricane Dorian hit home like a battle-ax.

“The result was much higher rainfall and more widespread destructive winds across PEI with Dorian compared to Juan,” said Jay Scotland, the weatherman.

On Monday Blair Campbell, the chief executive officer of PEI Mutual Insurance, said they logged the most claims ever on Sunday, the day after the storm. More than four hundred policy holders called in property damage.

“These are damage claims in the frequency and magnitude that we have not seen before,’’ he said.

Fishing boats from Stanley Bridge to Covehead were smashed submerged.

“Sobeys in Charlottetown this morning was worse than Christmas,” said Michelle. “You couldn’t get anywhere with your cart. Everybody was buying dry cereal, canned fruit, ready-to-eat, and cases of water.”

Frances MacLure was stocking up.

“So far I have just bought batteries,” she said.

“I have two radios and I’m just going to make sure one of them is going to work. It’s always nice to be able to keep in touch if the power is out for any length of time,” she said.

There were water and sandwich makings on her list, as well.

“Just for a quick bite if the power goes off.”

“Everybody was buying batteries,” said Michelle. “The last time a hurricane came to the island, power was out for more than a week.”

“We are very concerned, we’ve certainly spent the last three days in readiness, in going through all of our checklist and checking our equipment,” said Kim Griffin of Maritime Electric as the weekend approached.

“There is a lot of greenery and foliage on the trees, that is a concern to us. So, we are really asking our customers to make sure they are prepared and ready.”

“When was that?” asked Frank.

“About fifteen years ago,” said Michelle. “Summerside has its own power, but if it goes out in New Brunswick, this whole part of the island won’t have any power.”

“Do you still have that moonshine cocktail?” asked Vera.

“We do,” said Michelle.

Vera had an Island Shine and Frank had a pint of lager.

“Are you going to have the big chowder?” asked Vera.

“Yes,” said Frank.

“I’m going to have a small bowl of soup and the ribs,” said Vera. “What about going halves on the lamb and feta appetizer? It’s good with everything.”

“Sure,” said Frank, agreeably. “You can’t go wrong with the ribs, and the mac and cheese they come with. That cheese from Glasgow Glen, it’s good. I had it the last time we were here.”

“I hope Emily has the sweet potato curry soup tonight,” said Vera. “Curry is my number one favorite thing in the world.”

“What about me?”

“You’re close, maybe third or fourth.”

“That close, huh?”

“You don’t like curry, which is a problem. I think Emily is a curry person, like me. She probably does a great Fall Flavors menu.”

The Mill’s owner and chef Emily Wells was born in England and lived on the continent before coming to Prince Edward Island in 1974 when her parents bought Cold Comfort Farm. She is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of Canada, committed to healthy local food and ethical food production. She has worked in restaurants in PEI and Ontario for more than three decades and is a key contributor to the River Clyde Pageant.

The pageant, four years running, is about the tidal river, and features great blue herons, trout puppets, schools of dressed-up jellyfish, bridge trolls and mermaids and fishermen.

“I love it when you put curry in things, but then all of a sudden you don’t taste anything else. I feel like you can taste everything else in her soups.”

“It’s like her chowder, it’s chock-full, but nothing’s drowned out, all the parts stand out,” said Frank. “It’s not too busy.”

“Everything here is always better than I expect, even though I always expect it to be good,” said Vera.

“My boyfriend is a chef at the Blue Mussel in North Rustico, and it’s hard for us to get a day off in the summer on the same day, so we hardly ever eat out,” said Michelle.

“After eating here and at the Mussel, we don’t always want to go, anyway, but we ate out in Charlottetown a few weeks ago, and the chowder we got was mostly a milky liquid, with so little fish in it. We poked around for whatever we could find but ended up asking for another loaf of bread. We got it to dunk into the chowder, because there were hardly any pieces of anything.”

From one end of PEI to the other pieces of preparation were coming together.

“We have been busy as a team,” said Randy MacDonald, chief of the Charlottetown Fire Department, the day before the storm. “Our team has been making preparations for tomorrow’s storm.”

He said chainsaws and generators were on hand. “We may see trees down, branches down, large branches taking down power lines, that sort of thing.” Rapid response cars, trucks, and ambulances were gassed full and staff was on the alert, ready to go.

While the tempest was rolling up the coast, Michelle didn’t just rush to Sobeys. She took matters into her own hands, in her own kitchen, in her own house.  “I live just down the road from here, next to the Gouda place. I send my son there for pizza, since he can walk over.”

The Gouda place makes artisan cheese.

“I’ve passed my name and my expertise on to Jeff McCourt and his new company Glasgow Glen Cheese,” said the former Cheese Lady, Martina ter Beek.

Glasgow Glen Farm slaps out skins from scratch, down the line doing the dough to sprinkling homegrown veggies and meats on the pie, featuring their own made from scratch gouda, working behind the front counter at two long tables just inside the door, wood firing the pizzas in a brick oven.

In the summer there are picnic tables alongside the gravel parking lot, a grassy field sloping away from a pile of cordwood.

“I made chowder,” said Michelle. “It was a fishy stew, like Mel does. I ended up using cod, clams, and scallops. I made everything else, clam juice, potatoes, carrots, onions, and tomatoes out of my garden. Once the potatoes were almost completely cooked, I took the pieces of cod and sat them on top. I put a lid on it and all the flavor, yeah, of the cod went into it.”

She didn’t need any bread to help her chowder out, either.

While Vera pulled gently at her baby back ribs, Frank started scooping out his large bowl of broth and seafood.

“How’s the sinkhole?“ asked Vera.

“So far so good,” said Frank. “It’s sort of like a Manhattan clam chowder, like the Portuguese make, and like a seafood goulash at the same time.”

“Like a cioppino.”

“Like a what?”

“That’s the official name of it,” said Vera.

“Anyway, I can taste bay leaves and thyme, and there might be some oregano in it. It’s loaded with stuff. She must have hit the motherload at the fish market. There are mussels, halibut, lobster, a chuck of salmon, and mini-shrimps.”

“Emily probably uses whatever she has on hand,” said Vera.

“On top there’s a red pepper rouille, almost like a pesto, which gives it a kick,” said Frank.

“Are you going to be able to finish it?”

“I’m going to give it my best shot.”

Halfway through their meal, when Vera spotted a plate of maple mousse walking by, she said to Frank, “That’s what I want to try for dessert tonight. It’s frozen mousse, like ice cream. I thought it might not be good for sharing, but that thing is more than big enough.”

“All right,” said Frank, “since that Anna kid is a wizard. First, we eat well, then we face tomorrow, no matter what happens.”

The Mill was almost vacated evacuated when they paid their bill of fare and left.

“You wouldn’t know a hurricane is blowing in,” Frank said to Vera as they lingered in the front lot after dinner, leaning against the back hatch of their Hyundai, watching the no traffic on the quiet road, the starry northern sky quiet above them.

When Saturday morning rolled around, it started getting dark, and by noon it started raining. It got windy and windier. The Coastline Cottages and the Doyle houses on the other side of the park road lost power in the late afternoon. Churchill Avenue in town was closed down. The Gulf Shore Parkway east from Brackley was closed down. Roads in all directions were closed down, as utility wires and branches blew away. Fences were flattened, roofs torn off, and hundred-year-old trees toppled.

The damage to the Cavendish Campground, seven-some miles away from where Frank and Vera were staying, was so bad it was closed for the rest of the year. An arc from Cavendish to Kensington to Summerside was walloped. Islanders tarped roofs, sawed up tree limbs, and hauled away debris for days afterwards. On Sunday morning all the trails administered by Parks Canada everywhere on PEI were shut down until they could be assessed.

After their cottage lost power, Frank and Vera packed for their drive home the next day and tidied up while there was still some light. “At least we know the mondo bridge is as sturdy as it gets,” said Vera. When it got dark, 19th century-style dark, they popped open the remains of a bottle of red wine and spent the rest of the night riding out the lashing all-out rain and gusting big ass wind.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

Jumping Stanley Bridge

Richard Moore, Emma MacIssac and Connor McVey

“It was terrifying,” said Johanna Reid.

She was standing on the outside edge of the bridge in the town of Stanley Bridge, on the far side of the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, looking down into the New London Bay.

She was 12-years-old. Her father had already jumped from the bridge. The hard flat dark blue of the bay was more than twenty feet below her.

“He didn’t tell me much. I stood on the opposite side of the rail looking down at the water for probably an hour,” she said. “I just couldn’t do it. I finally closed my eyes and jumped feet first. It took a lot of effort. After I hit the water I thought, Oh, my gosh, why couldn’t I have done that before?”

Now 20-years-old she’s been jumping every summer ever since. The Stanley Bridge is a simply supported beam-style bridge on Route 6 where it crosses the Stanley River. Built in the 1960s to replace a worse for the wear wood overpass, it is made of steel with a concrete deck. There is a sidewalk on the jumping side.

“The first couple of times I jumped I screamed, but now I just get up there, crawl over the railing, and go.”

Prince Edward Islanders living on the north central shore have been jumping the Stanley Bridge for as long as anyone can remember. “I used to jump off the bridge in the 1950s,” said Harriet Meacher. “Fun fun.”

“We all jumped off the bridge,” said Phyllis Carr, whose Carr’s Oyster Bar, on the near shore of the bay, is a few hundred-or-so yards from the bridge. Anyone on any summer day can sit on the outdoor dining deck of the eatery with a pint and a plate of shellfish and watch jumpers all day long.

“My brother Leon was only 4-years-old when he first jumped. It’s a tradition.”

The bridge at Basin Head, one of PEI’s better-known beaches on the eastern end of the island, is the other launching pad popular with jumpers. The Basin Head Bridge spans a fast-flowing boat run that is capable of rushing jumpers out into the Northumberland Strait, another way to get swept off your feet. Although signs prohibit any and all jumping, it is honored more in the breach.

“It’s one of those time-honored traditions here on Prince Edward Island, and from when I was down there watching the activities, people were really enjoying their experience,” said Tourism Minister Rob Henderson.

“A lot of people do it,” said Johanna about jumping the Stanley Bridge, “especially from around here. My dad lived just up the road and used to jump all the time when he was younger.”

“I dived since I was little,” said Earl Reid.

“I remember seeing people jumping off of it ever since I was born,” said Johanna. “I told my dad, you forward dive, but I’ll jump feet first. I’m too chicken.”

Majoring in Kinesiology, which is the study of human body movement, at the University of New Brunswick, Johanna Reid has played hockey since she was four-years-old, through high school, and continues to play in a women’s conference. A fast fit trim young lady, she has played rugby since she was a teenager and competes in her college league.

“I like making tackles, pulling them down, even when they’re twice my size,” she said.

She may have been a chicken once on the Stanley Bridge, but she takes the chicken out of chicken noodle soup everywhere else.

Some people forward dive off the bridge, others back dive or back flip, but most leap feet first. They do it for good reason

“You can do a starfish, or a belly flop, but that hurts,” said Denver McCabe, Johanna Reid’s 9-year-old cousin, who first jumped Stanley Bridge when he was 8-years-old. “I pencil dive, like a pencil, feet straight in.”

Belly flops are the bane of jumpers. “You never want to belly flop,” said Johanna. It is always a stinging pancake slap of a bad time. The crack of a belly hitting the New London Bay at velocity is the Frankendive of Stanley Bridge.

“One day there were a bunch of tourists jumping, and a little boy, 7 or 8-years-old, was trying to jump with them,” recalled Johanna. “I was swimming back after a jump. He was going to dive, so I watched him, while I paddled around. Halfway down he decided he didn’t want to be diving anymore and started to pull back. He belly flopped. We had to help him out because he was freaking. But, it just hurt him at the time and he was fine in the end.”

“It’s not quite like falling on concrete, but it’s a similar sensation, ” said Dr. Sonu Ahluwalia, a surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “Most of the time, other than ego and the skin, nothing will happen.”

The plucky brave curious come to Stanley Bridge from around the island, from Victoria, North Rustico, and Kensington, as well as some summer tourists from the rest of Canada and the United States. They jump alone or with their friends.

“Nothing says bonding like jumping off the bridge at Stanley Bridge,” said Rika Kebedie of Burlington, Ontario, about jumping with friends.

“When I was 13-years-old a lady was biking by,” said Johanna. “She had just gotten a cottage down the road and we had a chat when she stopped on the bridge. She had her bathing suit on, so I said, you should jump off.”

The woman gave it a thought. “OK, I’ll jump,” she said, leaning her bicycle on the railing and going over the side.

“She jumped off the bridge and survived, and now she’s here every summer, and she said I was her first friend on PEI.”

Jumping the Stanley Bridge starts in mid-to-late May, once the water has warmed up. “Some people jump in early May. That’s too crazy for me. I usually start at the start of June,” said Johanna. “When it’s cold, it’s an instant shock, like someone dumping a bucket of ice water on you. You come up from under the water pretty fast.”

Since the harbor on the bay side of the bridge brims with working fishing boats, and pleasure craft go up and down on both rivers,  the Stanley and the Southwest, spotters keep an eye out for traffic. “I’ve heard someone once jumped and landed on the deck of a boat, but it could be a myth,” said Johanna.

Besides passing boats and belly flops, jellyfish are the scourge of jumpers swimming back to the breakwall or the shoreline dock ladder. “They just float along, their tentacles floating behind them, and they hit you going by. Some days there are huge ones, as big as a pie plate.”

Jellyfish are free-swimming marine animals and are called jellyfish because they are jelly-like. They have no brains and have been swimming the oceans from even before there were dinosaurs. Crabs sometimes hitch a ride on top of them so they don’t have to exert themselves swimming to where they want to go.

Jellyfish never give their crustacean freeloaders a second thought.

“Every so often you can see them from the bridge, so you wait until they go by,” said Johanna. “When they sting you it really stings, it can really hurt. What I do is take some mud off the ocean, rub it on the bite, and you’re good to go.”

The first step off the edge of a bridge into mid-air is a step into a second-or-two of complete freedom. It is where most people never thought they might be. “Once you step off nothing in the world matters,” said Marta Empinotte, a world-class Brazilian BASE jumper, about stepping into space.

In mid-air jumpers find out that they don’t know anything, only that they’re in the nothing of mid-air, even though there’s no such thing as nothing. Once you’re off firm ground there’s nothing you can do about it, anyway. It’s only when you hit the water that you become something again.

“Whenever you go out on the bridge it looks kind of scary when you look down,” said Denver McCabe. ”The water will be 30 feet, even 40 feet down. The last time I jumped, when I checked on my iPad, it was 26 feet.

“It felt like nuthin’.”

The bravery of small boys can sometimes be larger than life, or not.

“But, you don’t want to belly flop, that’s for sure,” he added.

You don’t want to jump into a mass of eels, either.

“We used to jump off Tommy’s,” said Carrie Thompson, whose family owned the aquarium next to the Oyster Bar. She worked summers at the marine exhibit.

“We weren’t allowed to jump off the bridge, so we jumped off the wharf. Maybe the current pushed the eels that way. It was gross.”

On hot days when there is a crew on the Stanley Bridge waiting their turns, motorists often honk their horns while driving by, yelling, “Jump, jump!” Sometimes friends encourage their friends to make the leap, usually by daring them. “I dare you, they’ll say,” said Johanna, “and then they do it, even when they’ve never jumped from the top of the railing or done a back flip.”

Sometimes the encouragement takes the form of a shove.

“I wouldn’t push anyone I didn’t know or who was younger than me” said Johanna, “but if they were my friend, and weren’t going, weren’t doing it, I would just push them right in. The way I do it, I attempt it a few times, freak them out, and when they’re about to jump, it’s get in there! I just push them.”

The fear of jumping can take an unlikely turn.

“One of my friends from Bermuda was scared to get into the water because in Bermuda you can see everything, the water is so clear, but here it’s dark water. He eventually jumped the bridge, but he would only do it back-flipping.”

Joanna Reid has jumped the bridge every summer with every one of her friends. “Pretty much everyone in my high school did it. You could say, want to go bridge jumping, and anybody would go.”

A native of Stanley Bridge, “Yup, born and raised,” she spends autumn winter spring at university in New Brunswick, but her summers at home, kayaking, hanging out with her friends, and waiting tables at Carr’s Oyster Bar, as well as jumping the bridge at Stanley Bridge.

“When it’s a nice day, but there’s no wind, and you’re really hot, I will jump ten times, more-or-less. It cools you off.”

She never loses her cool, either, flying feet first thrill downwards cooling off, off the Stanley Bridge into the sparkling bright easy-landing water of New London Bay.

Photograph by Andre Forget

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Crackerjack in the Mess

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“I see you’ve made it back,” said Michelle, sporting neato retro eyeglasses and handcrafted rings on nearly every finger of every hand. Waiting tables, delivering three four five plates at a time, is two-fisted three-fisted work.

“I have to try the pad Thai, after seeing the folks next to us digging into it the week before last,” said Vera.

‘That’s one of Emily’s best, definitely. Would you like to start with a drink?” she asked, one of the three grown-up servers on the floor the early September weekend evening.

“What is a good mixed drink?” asked Vera, running her eyes up and down the menu.

“Everything, but Kim can mix up anything if we don’t make it.”

“What is Straight Shine?”

“Shine.”

“Like moonshine?”

“It’s our island-made moonshine.”

“Like Ole Smoky in a mason jar?” asked Frank.

“Not the same, it’s served more like a margarita,” said Michelle.

“That’s a step in the right direction,” said Frank.

“My God, I might moonshine,” said Vera. “My grandfather used to make vodka at home. All his friends from Lithuania, who escaped during the war, would come over on Sunday afternoons after church, drinking the rest of the day, reminiscing, yakking it up, and singing their old country songs. OK, I’ll try it.”

“I’ll have a pint, something IPA,” said Frank.

Frank and Vera Glass were at The Mill, a restaurant on a high bank overlooking the River Clyde in New Glasgow, on Prince Edward Island, up the eastern Canadian coast. The eatery is in a two-story Dutch Colonial-like blue building built in 1896. It served as a community center and courthouse, among its many later incarnations. It was converted to a restaurant in the 1990s by the Larkin’s, nearby poultry farmers who are the largest turkey growers in the province.

“We used to have a guy in shipping, in the warehouse, from West Virginia, who brought back moonshine every time he went home for a visit,” said Frank, as Vera sipped her Straight Shine. “He always said you could tell it was good if you put a match to it and the flame burned blue. That meant it was good to go and wouldn’t make you go blind.”

Michelle walked up and lit the tea candle on their table.

“How is it,” she asked

“It looks good to me,” said Vera. “What I mean is, it tastes good.”

When the Larkin’s transitioned out of the dining room business twenty years later, The Mill stayed down home when PEI chef Emily Wells took over, putting her fusion-style stamp on the dining room.

Vera ordered the stir-fried garlic ginger cilantro lemon juice rice noodle fettucine pad Thai with lobster and Frank ordered the special, curry sweet potato soup, baby back ribs with mac and cheese, and dessert. It was East meets West meets Italy. Fusion cooking is the art of mixing ingredients and preparation styles from different cultures into a distinctive dish of tastiness.

The window Frank and Vera were sitting at had gone dark by the time they finished their dinners, although Vera was still on the last lap. She was a slow eater and her plate had been stacked. A quarter-moon in a cloudless sky reflected a milky light in the river. Frank leaned back in his chair as Vera lifted a final forkful to her mouth.

“Since we both ordered something new, why don’t we try something new for dessert, too?” Frank asked Vera.

They had eaten at The Mill several times the past three years and usually ordered coffee and carrot cake after dinner, since the carrot cake was about the best they had eaten anywhere.

“It’s better than my mom’s, and she’s a pro,” said Vera.

Vera’s mother was a freelance pastry chef in Cleveland, Ohio, who during the holiday season mixed in making website-ordered Russian Napoleon cakes, shipping them frozen solid all around the country by Fed-Ex next-day air.

“How about the chocolate cake that couple from Miami told us about?”  asked Vera.

“We move around the island a lot,” said the husband from Florida. “We’ve eaten at a lot of restaurants but overall this is our absolute favorite.”

“What’s so great?” said the lady of the house. “The unique combination of flavors and menu options, and there’s not a deep fryer in the kitchen! They’re dedicated to local food sourcing, which means super fresh food and vegetables. Make sure to try the chocolate cake even if you’re full. It’s made in-house and melts in your mouth.

“And the portions are large, too,” she added.

Unlike more than one restaurant with a swell reputation on Prince Edward Island, in the meantime serving prison camp portions at penthouse prices, The Mill gets it done with a square deal, even though it has as much, if not more, in the culinary arts to crow about.

“Do you bake this here?” asked Vera.

“Our baker does,” said Michelle.

“It’s totally delicious, the dark chocolate, if you want to let the baker know.”

A few minutes later a strapping young woman with disheveled hair walked up to their table.

“Did you make this?” asked Frank, pointing to the half-eaten slice of zuccotto he was sharing with his wife.

“Yeah,” said Anna, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Do you make the carrot cake, too?

“Yeah.”

“It’s our favorite carrot cake anywhere,” said Vera. “Your chocolate dessert is what chocolate dessert should taste like, up-to-the-minute. They can be boring, doing the same thing over and over again. This is definitely bomb cake, in more ways than one.”

“You seem awfully young to be making cake this good,” said Frank

“Yeah,” said Anna with a big smile.

“How old are you?”

“I’m 17-years-old,” said Anna. “I was 15 when I first started cooking here. I came in to work one day, I was bussing tables, and my boss said, you’re scaring everyone out there. You have to go into the kitchen. From that point on I’ve worked in the kitchen.”

“Scaring everyone?” asked Frank.

“Yeah, they said my personality was too big.”

“Too big?” said Vera.

“I was fourteen. How scary could I be?” asked Anna. “I guess I can be scary sometimes. Nothing’s really changed.”

“I told her when she worked out front that she was scaring the customers with her huge personality,” said Kim, the mixologist. “Now that she’s in the kitchen, she’s come up with pet names for all of us. We won’t talk about that, though. It can get gross.”

“What did you guys eat?” asked Anna.

“She had the Thai and I had the special. Last week we both had the big seafood chowder bowl,” said Frank.

“Ahhh,” said Anna.

“I’ve heard you have a name for it in the kitchen.”

“We have a pet name for it, yeah.”

“I tasted orange in the soup,” said Vera.

“Yup, there are orange peels, marinated, and bay leaves, that we take out right before service. We make our own fish broth, and our own vegetable broth, too.”

The new Mill, brainchild of Emily Wells, who was named one of the north’s top chefs by the Matador Network in 2016, serves fresh local food made with global flair. She works in a classic vein, adapting her recipes to what’s in place and on time. “You’re buying local lettuce, local tomatoes,” she said. “A huge chunk of it, it’s seafood season on PEI.” A graduate of the first class at the Culinary Institute of Canada, she cut her teeth in kitchens in Ontario and Prince Edward Island, and made a name for herself at The Dunes in Brackley Beach.

“I’ve been at it for thirty-five years,” she said.

“Oh, I’ve got mussels on the stove, back in a minute,” said Anna, striding out of the dining room.

“I thought Emily was making the desserts, or they were buying them from some high-end bakery,” said Vera.

“If that teenager is the pastry chef, all I can say is, she’s totally up to speed,” said Frank.

“Do you make all the desserts,” asked Vera, when Anna came back to their table.

“Yeah, I’m a line cook and the baker.”

“My mother is a pastry chef,” said Vera. “You’re very good.”

“How did you learn to bake so well?” asked Frank.

“Emily taught me. I‘m a quick learner. I learned a lot from my grandmother. I used to spend all my time with her when I was a kid. She taught me to pickle and bake.”

Not everyone is good with pastry, not by any means.

“I make no bones about it,” says Michael Symon, chef, author, and restaurateur. “I have no understanding of pastry.”

“Honestly, I hate to say this,” said Anna, “but my aunt makes an even better carrot cake than I do.”

“You’re early to be nearly as good as your aunt,” said Frank.

“Most of our staff is young,” said Anna. “Everyone in the kitchen is under 20, except Andrea and Emily. We have a 19-year-old, another 17-year-old, and a 13-year-old, who is my sister. Luke, our other prep, has three younger brothers who work here.”

“It’s like a family line on the line,” said Frank.

If you are under 16 in the province and want to work, you must have permission from your parents, only work between 7 AM and 11 PM, and not work in an environment that is harmful to your health, safety, moral or physical development, among other things. If you are over 16, those limits don’t apply.

“I’ll tell you about PEI and Atlantic Canada, it’s a culture of honest, hard work,” says Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Sometimes known as the “Million-Acre Farm,” farming is king on the island. Farming for a living is hard work. You won’t ever need a gym membership. There are some advantages. You are your own boss, you can go to work in boots and a dirty t-shirt, and you eat like a king.

“I started as a dishwasher,” said Anna.

Working the dish pit means long hours on your feet, getting wet a lot, and ending the day smelling like food and dirt. It’s not markedly different than farming.

“The kids are great,” said Kim. “Ours is a teaching kitchen, so they get an education, and get paid. They all have a great work ethic. The little hostess, she’s fifteen, a crackerjack like Anna. It’s great to see that they want to work. I’ve worked in other places, and it’s like pulling teeth, all standing around. Here, they’re eager to learn and do.”

“A lot of people, their idea of baking is buying a ready-made mix and throwing in an egg,” said Vera. “I make carrot cake at home, but it’s just carrots and stuff. One of our cats likes a piece now and then. Yours is both more subtle and more complex.”

“The main spices we use are ginger, cloves, and cinnamon, and a bit of all-spice, and that’s about it.”

“The cake isn’t heavy, which is what I like,” said Frank.

“There’s pineapple in it.”

“The frosting is terrific,” said Vera.

“I couldn’t come to work yesterday,” said Anna. “I decided my cat died.”

“Oh, my gosh, that’s too bad!” said Vera. “What happened?”

“She was an outdoor cat. I had her since I was six, I came home one day and asked, where’s my cat, but nobody had seen her for days. It’s been a month. I sat outside in my lawn chair until it got dark, but she never came back. I’m pretty sure she got eaten by a coyote.”

After paying the bill, Frank and Vera lingered at the rail on the front deck. The band that had been playing in the loft was in the parking lot, still hooting it up. The night air was damp but brisk. The moon hovered in the inky sky. Across the street, lights glowed over the bay doors of the New Glasgow Volunteer Fire Department.

“That girl might be one of the best 17-year-old pastry chefs no one has ever heard of, not anywhere, except for right here,” said Frank.

“Besides the known and the unknown, what else is there?” said Vera.

“That moonshine seems to have gone to your head,” said Frank.

“Ha, ha. Anyway, she’s got a big smile, big energy, and some scary cake talent. Somebody will hear about her, sooner or later.”

There’s always a “Surprise Inside” every box of Cracker Jack.

They walked to the end of the deck leading to the side lot. Fluorescent lights blazed the windowpanes. Dishes clattered through the open windows, the kitchen staff having a gab fest as they cleaned up. They heard a rowdy high-spirited laugh, which followed them down the steps and stretch of gravel to their car.

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Six Oysters Ahoy

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“He was a very valiant man who first adventured on the eating of oysters.”  King James VI and I

“I checked the weather report,” said Frank Glass.

“What did you find out?” asked Vera Glass.

“It’s going to be the same today as it was yesterday.”

“Is it going to rain all day?” asked Vera.

“You don’t need a weatherman for that,” said Frank, throwing a glance at the window.

A steady rain was falling outside the large front window of the cottage, down on the long sloping lawn of the Coastline Cottages, on the Gulf Shore Parkway, on the three houses on the other side of the road, and out to the horizon as far as they could see. The sky was dark over Doyle’s Cove. Broad surfboard-sized waves worked up the water. When Frank looked out the northwest-facing kitchen window, the sky, where the weather was coming from, was even darker.

“What should we do? It rained all day yesterday. I’m getting cabin fever.”

“We could play cards, read, and talk among ourselves. How about dinner and a show?”

“That sounds good, especially the part about dinner,” said Vera. “Where do you want to eat?”

“There’s a show opening tonight at the Victoria Theatre.”

“All right, but what about dinner?”

“We could eat at the Landmark, it’s right there.”

“I’ve always liked the Landmark,” said Vera. “Eugene is a great cook. They have the best meat pies.”

“Somebody told me he sold it and there are new owners,” said Frank.

“What? How can that be? Eugene and Olivier and Rachel are gone?”

The Sauve family tree had repurposed an old grocery store in Victoria into a café restaurant in the late 1980s, adding a deck, digging a basement for storage and coolers, and expanding their dining space several times. They were a perennial ‘Best Place to Eat on Prince Edward Island’ in the magazine Canadian Living.

“It’s now called the Landmark Oyster House.”

“I love oysters,” said Vera. “Let’s go.”

It was still raining when Frank and Vera drove up Church Hill Road and swung onto Route 6, through North Rustico to Route 13, through Hunter River and Kelly’s Cross. It was still raining when they pulled into the small seaside town of Victoria on the other side of Prince Edward Island, on the Northumberland Straight side, 45 minutes later. It rained on them as they rushed into the Landmark Oyster House.

There wasn’t a table to be had, but there were two seats at the bar.

“Look, we’re right in front of the oysters,” said Vera, as they sat down at the closed end of it. “I love this spot.”

Kieran Goodwin, the bartender, agreed, standing on the other side of the bar, on the other side of a large shallow stainless steel bin full of raw oysters on ice.

“Best seats in the house,” he said. “They were going to put the bar in the front room, but the dimensions didn’t work out.”

“Who’s they?” asked Frank.

Vera looked the chalkboard on the wall up and down. The names of the oysters on ice were written on the board. There were six of them, Valley Pearl, Sand Dune, Shipwreck, Blackberry Point, Lucky Limes, and Dukes. She looked down into the bin. She couldn’t make heads or tails of which were which. She knew raw oysters were alive, more-or-less.

She wondered, how could you even tell?

“Greg and Marly Anderson,” said Kieran. “They own a wedding venue up the road.”  It is the Grand Victoria Wedding Events Venue, in a restored former 19th century church. “When this opportunity came up, when Eugene was looking to tone it down a bit, they decided to purchase it.”

“I worked at the Oyster House in Charlottetown shucking oysters for almost five years,” said Marly. “We heard that the family wanted to retire because they had been working at this restaurant for 29 years. We already felt a connection to this place and we are friends and neighbors with the family.”

“They’ve put their roots down in the community, are making their stand here,” said Kieran.

“I like what they’ve done in here, casual but upscale,” said Vera.

“It looks like the kitchen is more enclosed than it was,” observed Frank.

“Yeah, they did up a wall,” said Kieran. “When you used to walk in, you could peek right in.”

“I remember Eugene telling us once he learned all his cooking from his mom. Who does the cooking now?”

“Kaela Barnett is our chef.”

“We couldn’t do this without her,” said Greg Anderson.

Somebody’s got to have a steady hand on the ladle that stirs the soup.

“I’m thinking of doing oysters and a board,” said Vera.

“That’s a good choice,” said Kieran. “I recommend the large board. You get a bit of everything. I personally like getting some cheese.”

“Me, too.”

“Are you oyster connoisseurs?” asked Kieran.

“Not me,” said Frank. “I can’t remember the last time I ate an oyster.”

“I wish I was, but I love them,” said Vera. “We were on the island last year and went to the Merchantman in Charlottetown with Doug and Rachel, Eugene’s daughter. We had oysters and she went through all the ones we ate, explaining them to me.”

“Would you like something from the bar?” asked Kieran.

“I’ll take the Gahan on tap, the 1772 Pale Ale.”

“What wine goes with oysters?” asked Vera.

“We have a beautiful California chardonnay,” said Kieran. “It’s great with shellfish. I recommend it.”

“This is good, fruity,” said Vera, tasting it.

“We have six oysters,” said Kieran. “You could do one of each.”

“That’s what I’ll do,” said Vera.

“I think I’ll have the seafood chowder and some of the board,” said Frank.

“Oh, Frank, try one,” said Vera.

“Lucky Limes are my favorite,” said Kieran. “It’s a good medium oyster.”

“OK, I’ll try it,” said Frank, shrugging.

Kieran handed him a Lucky Lime.

“How do I eat this thing?” Frank asked Vera.

“Sometimes I chew it, sometimes I don’t,” she said.

“Some people like putting stuff on it, like horseradish, which kills the taste,” said Kieran. “But straight up is best. That’s how islanders do it, just shuck it.”

Frank looked down at the liquid-filled half shell.

“From the wide end,” said Kieran.

He slurped the oyster into his mouth and swallowed it.

“Now you’re a pro,” said Vera.

“That wasn’t bad,” said Frank. “How could you tell it was a Lucky Lime? They all look the same to me.”

“If you look at the chalkboard, it’s one through six. That’s one way.”

“Can you tell by looking at them?” asked Vera.

“I can tell by the shell,” said Kieran. “The ones that are more green, that means there’s more saltwater content. So this is a Sand Dune, quite briny. That one is almost straight salt water.” He pointed to an even darker greener shell.

“The Shipwreck, the name made me nervous to have it, but it was mild,” said Vera.

“It would be farther up the estuary, closer to fresh water.”

“Blackberry Point was very salty.”

“The Blackberry’s are from Malpeque, which is near Cavendish,” said Kieran. “The Sand Dune is from Surrey, down east, and the Lucky Limes are from New London Bay. Valley Pearl is from Tyne Valley and the Dukes are from Ten Mile Creek.”

“I thought you were just making all this up,” said Frank.

“No, its like wine,” said Kieran.

“How did you get into the shellfish racket?” asked Frank.

“I graduated in business, traveled, lived in New Zealand and Australia, and then came back home, and worked in a bank as a financial advisor for six years, in Summerside and Charlottetown, but then I just got tired of working in a bank, and went back to school.”

“How did you find your way here, behind the bar?”

“I date Jamie, who is Marly’s sister.”

“Are those pickled carrots?” asked Vera, pointing at the charcuterie board in front of her.

“Yes, and you have raisin jam, too,” said Kieran.

“Chutney, stop the madness!” exclaimed Vera. “Oh, it’s strawberry jam. It just looks like chutney. It’s delicious.”

“We had raisin pie at a small diner in Hunter River the other day,” said Frank.

“The one by the side of the road, up from the Irving gas station?” asked Kieran.

“That’s the one,” said Frank. “The waitress told us she always thinks of raisin pie as funeral pie, because back in the day, if there was a funeral in the winter, women always made raisin pies for the reception after the memorial service, because raisins kept all year round.”

“Can I take my oyster shells with me?” asked Vera.

“Sure,” said Kieran. ”We can get a little bag for you.”

“You can really taste the sea eating oysters,” said Vera. “Blackberry Point was a little thin and too salty, but once you eat one, and you don’t like it, whoa, what are you going to do? Valley Pearl didn’t have a lot of flavor, but there was some good texture to it. Lucky Lime was very good. My favorite was Sand Dune. It had a strong ocean flavor, briny.”

“I’ve heard people say oysters are slimy, but the one I had, it didn’t seem that way,” said Frank. “I can see having oysters again.”

“Don’t people sometimes say the world is your oyster?” said Vera.

“Do you want dessert?” asked Kieran.

“Do you have carrot cake?”

“It’s made here.”

“We’ll split a slice of that, and two coffees, thanks.”

As Vera and Frank dug into their carrot cake, there was a commotion at the other end of the bar. Kieran, Jamie, and Marly were huddling over glowing screens.

“Did your electronics go haywire?” asked Frank when Kieran brought them coffee.

“The microwave in the basement tripped the breaker. We hardly ever use it, except to melt butter sometimes. It’s weird, it’s been working until now. We have a thing that magnifies our wi-fi signal. We just found out it’s on the same circuit.”

“My mother was a pastry chef,” said Vera. ”She didn’t use microwaves much, but whenever she did, she always said, ‘I’m going to nuke it now!’”

Frank and Vera used their forks on the last crumbs of their cake and finished their coffee. Frank checked the time on his iPhone. “Time to go, sweetheart,” he said. They paid the bill and stood to go.

“Enjoy the show, hope to see you again,” Kieran said as Frank and Vera walked out of the Oyster House.

“It’s raining and sunny at the same time,” said Frank as they dashed across the street to the Victoria Theatre, yellow slanting sunlight leading the way.

“That’s PEI for you,” said Vera. “By the way, what are we seeing?”

“Where You Are.”

“I know where we are,” said Vera.

“That’s the name of the show,” said Frank.

“Aha, I see,” said Vera.

“Hustle it up, we’re almost late.”

They went up the steps into the theater, got their programs, and sat down. Vera tucked the bag of shells under her seat. “Wherever you are, there you are, oyster boys and girls” she thought, making sure they were safe and sound.

“How could you even tell?” she wondered as the lights went down and the show started.

Photograph by Vanessa Staskus

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Gone Gros Morne

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“The secret to acting is don’t act. Be you, with add-ons.” Michael Sheen

“I’m going to take off now,” said Leah Pritchard. “I’m going to go. I’m going to do what I want. I’m going to leave. That’s what’s going to happen.”

It was the tail end of her last year at Gros Morne Academy in Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland. Closing in on the end of theater studies with Sarah McDonald, the teacher pulled Leah aside. “Of all the students here, the one we think would be feasible as a professional actor is the one who’s always saying they don’t want to do it. You would be the one strong enough and talented enough to actually make it.”

Leah Pritchard had other plans. She was geared up and buckled down about joining the Mounties. She meant business.

When the class mounted their year-end play, everybody’s parents coming to see the show, Sarah McDonald rustled up Ross and Marion Fraser-Pritchard. She meant business, too.

“We’re going to put her in theater school at university, so that’s the plan,” she told Leah’s parents.

“My dad did not want me leave Newfoundland and he did not want me to be in the RCMP,” said Leah.

“Fine, great, we’ll keep her here,” said her father, despite himself and his wife both being Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

“I was still very angry about being in Newfoundland, about being moved around, leaving Nova Scotia.” She was 17-years-old. “I was a surly teenager, a willful child. I didn’t want to be here anymore.”

She turned 18 her first day three months later at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “She can’t get into the theater program right away, but we’re going to make sure she gets into it,” Sarah McDonald told Leah’s father. “She was my mentor,” said Leah.

In the meantime, she snuck into theater classes.

“I was hanging with my friends one day when I got locked in the class by accident when the professor came in. After I didn’t get called out for it, after a few weeks I started answering questions,” she said.

“Who are you?” Todd Hennessey, the teacher and Head of the Division of Fine Arts, finally asked her. “Do you take this class?”

“Um, no,” she answered.

“Don’t worry,” her friends told the teacher.. “You’ll meet her officially next year.”

In her last year at Memorial University she headlined Hard Ticket Theatre’s production of “Venus in Fur.”.Todd Hennessey directed the spooky two-person sex comedy. “It takes one heck of an actress to convincingly play a character who is regarded as being a fantastic actress, and Leah Prichard nails it,” wrote Rachael Joffred in her review.

The campus she attended was the Sir Wilfred Grenfell College at Corner Brook, where the bulk of the theater program was, and which is two hours from  Rocky Harbour. Wilfred Grenfell was an English doctor who opened hospitals, orphanages, and cooperatives one hundred years ago to serve the coastal inhabitants of Labrador and Newfoundland. He was an able-bodied doughty man. Once marooned on a slab of floating ice slob, he killed some of his dogs to make himself a fur coat in order to survive.

“They wanted to keep track of me, since I was just 18.” Two years later her mother was reassigned to RCMP Headquarters in Halifax. Her father took a post in the capital city, as well. Leah Pritchard stayed lived studied and worked in Newfoundland for the next nearly seven years.

Rocky Harbour is on the far western edge of Newfoundland. The town is home to Gros Morne National Park. There is a fjord lined with cliffs and waterfalls, formed by long-gone glaciers. There are caribou and moose, rainy moody fog-bound mountains, and the tablelands, where you can walk on the earth’s mantle. The landscape is ancient.

“If you ever see tourism commercials for Newfoundland,” said Leah, “there’s always this big fjord where somebody is standing with their arms outstretched saying, “Look at the world!’ That’s where I lived. You can spend a long time by yourself there. I ended up loving it.”

A native of Nova Scotia, Leah Pritchard grew up in Lower Sackville, a fast-growing suburb of Halifax. In the 1950s it was known for its drive-in theater, harness racing track, and WW2 bomber plane ice cream stand. It is today a family-oriented commuter community.

Her parents, now both retired, were RCMP policeman and policewoman. The Force, as it is known, is both a federal and national police force. It enforces the law on a contract basis in the territories and most of the provinces. In many rural areas it is the only police force. Its French acronym, GRC, is sometimes repurposed as Gravel Road Cops.

Despite its name, the Mounties is not an actual mounted police force anymore, although it still was in the 1930s when they brought the Mad Trapper of Rat River to justice.

Her grandfather was a RCMP officer. “It’s just a family thing,” she said. “It also makes you very popular in high school, let me tell you,” she added with a booming guffaw.

She is the youngest of five children. Her sister and two older brothers were adopted by her father when he was 21-years-old. “Their dad was a motorcycle cop and died on duty. My dad fell super in love with his widow and made a bold choice. The kids were 3, 2, and 1-years-old. The RCMP has always been a part of our lives. There’s a sense of honor and tradition.”

Growing up, the family moved whenever and wherever her parents were assigned. It was how they moved to Newfoundland, when her mother was made a detachment commander there. Leah spent most of her teen years in Yarmouth, on the Bay of Fundy in southwestern Nova Scotia. The seaside town is proximate to the world’s largest lobster fishing grounds.

“You get real accustomed to small town life real fast. There’s a lot of space in and around Yarmouth to get weird.”

No matter what efforts you summon to make sense of it, the world can still be a strange place. Small towns impart a sense of place, but often feelings of self-consciousness, too. It can mean the opportunity to create your own options out of the weird mix of things.

It is where Leah caught the acting bug.

“I was at a production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” at our high school when two of the actors started laughing hysterically on stage about something and couldn’t control themselves. I thought that looks like fun.”

She took fine arts and acting classes in both French and English. In lieu of lunch the drama students staged short one-act plays at a nearby small theater, declaiming their dialogue and handing out sandwiches to show goers who needed a bite. “We were just harmless theater geeks, so the teachers let us go and do that. I started spending all my time in theaters.”

Once in the acting stream at Memorial University she discovered the program was the only one of its kind in Atlantic Canada. It combined practical and academic training with small class sizes and one-on-one attention to detail by actors directors production professionals doubling up as faculty and staff.

“It’s a fabulous program, especially learning to handle Shakespeare,” said Leah. “The Newfoundland accent is the least bastardized accent in North America, the closest to what it would be in Shakespeare’s time. It’s got that time’s rhythm and music to it.”

Many Newfoundlanders work in classic theater, especially at Canada’s Stratford Festival, the internationally known repertory theater festival that showcases William Shakespeare. “The music is in our DNA,” said St. John’s native Robin Hutton, who has performed at Stratford for close to a decade. ”We can’t have a party without a sing song.”

Natives of ‘The Rock,’ as the province is sometimes known, who have worked at Stratford include Brad Hotter, Jillian Keiley, and Deidre Gillard-Rowlings. “We’re storytellers in Newfoundland,” said Brad Hotter. “Theater is a craft handed down, where you learn from people who pass it down from generation to generation.”

Leah Pritchard’s last semester at Memorial University was spent in England, taking master classes with working professionals and seeing shows in the West End and Stratford-upon-Avon. “You see as many plays as you can, you write reviews, and you rehearse a play. When you come back you put it up. It’s the culmination of all the work you’ve done the past four years.”

One of the plays she saw in London was “The 39 Steps,” accompanied by her brother, Ian, a six-foot-six lanky young man with curly ginger hair who at the time was also in the theater program. The show is a comic treatment of the Alfred Hitchcock movie. It is played for laughs, so Leah and Ian laughed their heads off

“Most people would unanimously agree that I’m a very loud person,” said Leah. “If I’m being quiet, there’s something wrong. Ian has an even bigger laugh, a booming laugh, not subtle, at all. We were there laughing our heads off, Eastern Canadians watching a comedy. Everyone around us was quiet. Somebody said, ‘That’s not why we’re here.’ English audiences are reserved. Come on! I said. That’s exactly why we’re here. Join in the jokes, please.”

Sometimes being the loud enough voice for quiet thoughts is what works. Leah sang with the Xara Choral Theatre Ensemble on their debut CD “Here On These Branches” about northern cultures, communities, and landscapes. It was nominated for best classical recording of 2015 at the East Coast Music Awards.

It’s what she does getting ready to go on stage every night, too. She sings to herself, pop jazz show tunes by Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, and Julie Andrews.

Back in Newfoundland with a newly minted BFA in acting on her resume, she found work as a bartender, a nanny, and an usher. “I’d get up at 6 in the morning, nanny the three kids, drop them off at their family’s restaurant, jump into a shower, get into my uniform, and go usher at the Gros Morne Theatre Festival.”

She worked in a candy store to make ends meet.

“You eat a lot of candy,” she said.

She got a job at a dinner theater in Halifax.

“You gotta do it,” she said. “It’s like cutting your teeth.”

Madrigals in the Middle Ages were a kind of dinner theater. They made a comeback in the 1970s, featuring mysteries and musicals. Actors like Lana Turner and Van Johnson performed between appetizers and dessert. Burt Reynolds owned his own dinner theater.

“You’re a performer, but you’re a waiter, too,” said Leah. “You sing and dance and run off stage to pick up six plates on a tray, deliver them, and run back on stage. You get into wicked great shape doing it.”

The bane of dinner theaters is the hubbub. “You’re a waiter as well as a performer and you have to deal with eaters. But there isn’t a fourth wall. If someone starts talking on their phone, because they don’t really give a fuck about you, you can stop and say, do you mind?”

It’s best said with an upturned nose, mock haughtiness, and a snooty English accent. “It’s not like you’re in the middle of a soliloquy,” she said.

Breaking into the arts world is often a matter of catching a break.

”My first Equity gig was in the fall after I graduated, which is very lucky.”

In late 2013, another teacher from the university, Jerry Etienne, saw her in a remount of “Venus in Fur.” He has directed more than thirty productions as Artistic Director of Theatre Newfoundland Labrador and founded the Gros Morne Theatre Festival. When he signed on to direct “The Rainmaker” at the Watermark Theatre on Prince Edward Island the next summer he asked her if she would consider signing up at the same time.

“Yes, please,” she said.

She played the plain spinster in the drought-ridden story set in Depression-era America whose family worries center on her slim marriage prospects and their dying cattle. “Leah Pritchard tunes into the right emotional channel,” wrote The Buzz, Prince Edward Island’s arts and entertainment monthly tabloid.

Summer stock at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico on the north central coast of the island means finding a place to live and a place to eat. “The stage manager and I roomed together for four years.” She ate at Amanda’s that became Fresh Catch that became Pedro’s Island Eatery when it was taken over by a Portuguese couple. “This village has been crying out for Pedro’s,” she said. “They give you so much food, delicious, and a beer. I get passionate about their haddock.”

Meanwhile, she worked up and down the east coast. “I’m very much an eastern girl,” she said. “I’d go insane without the ocean.”

In the spring of 2016 Leah appeared in “The Drowning Girls” at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, a play about the real-life early 20th-century British wife killer George Joseph Smith, who married three women in succession and drowned all three in succession. “There was a lot of sitting in water for long periods of time. There was even a splash zone by the first row.“

Later that fall she played Balthazar in “The Spanish Tragedy” at The Villain’s Theatre in Halifax. All the actors were actresses in the new adaptation and the revenge story unfolded with a plentiful dose of black humor.

By the end of the summer season of 2017, after four seasons at the Watermark Theatre, she had appeared in productions of “Blithe Spirit” “The Rainmaker” “The Lion in Winter” “Romeo and Juliet” “An Ideal Husband” “The Glass Menagerie” and most recently “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” and the perky newlywed in “Barefoot in the Park.”

“The Watermark has been very kind to me,” she said. “I’ve gotten the opportunity to do Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams.”

“Leah Pritchard and Jordan Campbell have genuine chemistry together, an innocent quality which is very watchable and perfectly suited to the play,” wrote Colm Magner in his review of “Barefoot in the Park” for The Guardian.

Some roles are more challenging than others.

“The Glass Menagerie was hard,” she said. “It was physically challenging, limping around, and I couldn’t figure Laura out, at first. She’s someone who lives inside herself, although as an actor on stage you can’t be too inside yourself. She’s a character who withdraws from the world, is quiet and reserved, and doesn’t want to be in confrontation. But on stage you need to be present, need to be seen, and need to be physically heard.

“It was weird.”

In the fall of 2017 Leah went on tour with Xara Choral Theatre’s adaptation of “Fatty Legs,” a children’s true story book about a plucky eight-year-old Inuit girl gone off to a residential school. “They called me Fatty Legs because a wicked nun forced me to wear a pair of red stockings that made my legs look enormous,” says the heroine. The larger theme is the cultural genocide of Canada’s defunct Indian boarding school system, which separated children from their traditional land, skills, language, and family.

Working with youngsters isn’t new for her. She has been a teaching assistant for Neptune Theatre’s youth theater workshops and led PEI Watermark Theatre’s youth theater acting conservatory for three summers.

Still a self-professed east coast girl, Leah Pritchard has recently moved to Toronto. The city boasts one of the liveliest theater scenes in the world, from major musicals at the Mirvish Theatres to Soulpepper, North America’s only year-round repertory company, to Buddies in Bad Times, the world’s largest and longest running queer theater.

“I want to be on the coast, but I understand the opportunities are in Ontario. I know what stages I want to be on and I’m going to keep working as hard as I can to get on those stages, by hook or by crook.”

Getting in the front door is easy to do if you’ve got a ticket. Getting in the stage door is hard to do if you’re an aspiring actor. Trying to make it in Toronto is a long uphill row to hoe.

“In Toronto no one needs to see you, no one needs to let you into the audition room, because there are thousands of you out there,” said Leah. “The way I approach my career is, there are thousands of good actors, but there aren’t thousands of me. There’s only one of me and they should be so lucky.”

Sometimes she tosses her head back when she laughs, like an actress from another time, a Myrna Loy or Angela Lansbury, who she bears a resemblance to. If she hasn’t laughed ten fifteen twenty times a day it hasn’t been a good day. “I get that I’m a young Angela Lansbury, a lot. I should be as lucky as that. I tell them I’m like a young old lady, not like how people are trying to be beautiful today.”

Looking ahead moving forward owning her career in the big city, she has several pokers in the fire, including Prince Edward Island. “It depends if there are roles for me in the plays they choose,” she said. “Five years in that theatre would be amazing. Even if they don’t, if I can manage a visit, the ocean, Pedro’s, it would be fabulous.”

She toured in the fall of 2018 with Xara Choral Theatre’s production of “Fatty Legs” reprising her work with the troupe.

This year she has found her way back to the Atlantic Ocean and Pedro’s Island Eatery and the Watermark Theatre for her fifth season, appearing in both summer shows, “Boeing Boeing” and “Crimes of the Heart.”

“She is very. very funny in ‘Boeing Boeing,'” said Robert Tsonos, Artistic Director at the Watermark.

“I’m always working to better myself as an actor,” she said. “I’m an independent artist, so I’m not desperate to be liked. I’m older, a little wiser, although maybe not very wise. I’m still only 28. How wise can a 28-year-old be?”

It”s not about to be or not to be.

It’s about the sharp-eyed actor on the way to doing what she wants who understands the first word line page in the manuscript of horse sense keenness awareness is about being unfailing about being you, adding-on but no second-handing and no pretending about what you’re doing to make yourself happen.

Photograph by Matthew Downey

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Rock the Castle

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There isn’t anything to be or not to be about “Kronborg – The Hamlet Rock Musical” as it kicks off the 55th season at The Charlottetown Festival on Prince Edward Island. It’s all about being, being in front and making it happen. There’s nothing indecisive about Hamlet. He’s got Claudius in his crosshairs nearly from the get-go.

Lawrence Olivier, who directed and starred in an acclaimed movie adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in 1948, said it is “the story of a man who cannot make up his mind.” The Hamlet of “Kronborg” doesn’t have that problem. His world has been rocked. He has got to make up his mind.

Hamlet’s first song “That It Should Come To This” – sung by Island-born Aaron Hastelow, in a grim dazzling performance of a determined rather than irresolute prince – is performed right after the Ghost King has made himself known to Marcellus and Horatio, and Claudius and Gertrude have made themselves known to Hamlet. He soon has a good idea of the double-dealing he doesn’t know everything about, yet. From that moment on it is hands on the wheel.

The singing is brisk and strong throughout, from the leads to the ensemble. Peter McBoyle, the show’s sound designer, has worked on several musicals at the Confederation Centre, including “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The orchestra, led by Craig Fair, leading the way, gets it done down in the pit, always there as the story unfolds.

Aaron Hastelow gets it done up top up front as Hamlet.

“From seeing a ten-minute segment of the piece in a review show when I was 13-years-old, to now, it’s surreal,” said Aaron⁣. “I need to acknowledge the tireless work of Craig Fair, giving us all this chance, and Cliff Jones for writing some of the most beautiful and memorable melodies. After 45 years, it’s time to share this show with audiences once again. Let’s rock!”

The show starts off with a bang, at the end of the story, as the last of all the main characters, save Horatio, fall down dead, and a black-clad dance troupe of post-modern Greek Furies peck at the fallen, pecking out the vengeance of the Ghost King, Hamlet’s father

“To be or not to be” is never spoken. “Let it be” by The Beatles is invoked. There will be blood is what is on everybody’s lips.

Lawrence Olivier once also said, “Lead the audience by the nose to the thought.” It’s an unfortunate phrase. Who wants to be led by the nose to anything? It’s far better to smell it out for yourself.

“Kronborg” propels the audience headlong to its windswept thought on passages of brisk music and stirring song and able-bodied dance and crafty staging, the twisting plot turning high and low. There are barely two lines of dialogue strung together to transition the songs. It is in some senses like an opera, incorporating all the elements of spoken theater, but sung instead of spoken.

It’s unlike an opera, however, since every word can be understood, it never stands still for long to show off a singer, the songs being embedded in the story, and it is exciting as hell from beginning to end. It bursts with energy.

“It’s a story of family, power, revenge, and sacrifice,” said Adam Brazier, artistic director at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, where the show was resurrected on their main stage, the Homburg Theatre, playing in repertory alongside both “Anne of Green Gables” and “Mamma Mia!”

It is by far the darker, and arguably the more galvanizing, show in town. There’s something both rockin’ and rotten in Denmark.  It’s been said about rock ‘n’ roll that the devil has all the best tunes and the devil is not going anywhere. It’s also been said that shake rattle and roll and three chords are where the truth is. Whatever the truth is, the show is masterminded, exact and sparkling, never slack, always on the go.

Only the Ghost King takes his time.

The set by scenic designer Brian Smith is German Expressionist, a kind of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari castle, ramparts, a ramp and movable stairs, and arched entranceways. A forest as bleak as prison bars is lowered several times, the trees jagged and menacing, no escape. The rest of the set is minimalist, from the overhead part medieval part modernist chandelier to Gertrude’s dressing room, more suggestion and more effective because of the suggestion.

Nothing in the background gets in the way of the song and dance and narrative in the foreground.

When Honeybelle – Nicola-Dawn Brook in a red beret and man the barricades – and the players of the play within the play belt out the gospel inspired “He Got It In the Ear,” the fulcrum on which the plot rests tilts and everything becomes the gospel truth.

Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and Ophelia pour their hearts out in “I Cannot Turn to Love” at the end of Act One. It ends suddenly. The stage goes dark.

You can’t wait for intermission to be over.

The musical was conceived and written in the early 1970s by Cliff Jones, He wrote it while working on the children’s TV show “Mr. Dressup.” A Toronto composer and lyricist, his original “Hamlet: The Musical” has been reprised several times. It played on Broadway in 1976 as “Rockabye Hamlet,” starring the rock star Meat Loaf.

It came back to PEI in concert form in 2017 in at the Indian River Festival. Cliff Jones was in the audience. Following the production at St. Mary’s Church, another concert was performed at the Confederation Centre. Shortly after that the wheels were set in motion to stage the show again.

“It’s back where it began and where, in my mind, it’s always belonged,” Cliff Jones said about the production at the Charlottetown Festival.

“When people on the Island found out that Craig Fair and I were working on “Kronborg” they all had their own story,” said Mary Francis Moore, directing the show.  “Who brought them to the show in 1974? What seat they were sitting in when they heard Cliff’s score. What it was like to work on the first Canadian show to ever make it to Broadway.”

The musical is more than just a piece of the Charlottetown Festival’s history.

“We recognize the significance the piece plays. We have dusted off the pages to create a re-envisioned production that has been fully re-orchestrated and re-arranged – new life breathed into this Canadian classic.”

The composer sat in on some of the rehearsals. “I saw what they were doing with this incredible company and with Craig Fair’s new arrangement and musical direction,” said Cliff Jones. “I’m thrilled. It’s been framing my life for the last 45 years. It’s renewed me.

“The show has always carried a special combination of being a fun, entertaining experience, but also being faithful to Shakespeare’s story.”

Kronborg is a 1400s stronghold castle in Helsingor, Denmark, that became Elsinore in Shakespeare’s late 1500s tragedy in five acts. “Kronborg – The Hamlet Rock Musical” is in two acts. Not a moment is wasted, but all the key moments are there, from the Ghost King to setting the scene of Gertrude and Claudius’s marriage, Claudius getting suspicious and Hamlet’s turmoil, the king’s plotting and the play within the play, Hamlet inadvertently killing Polonius, the banishment and the tragic climax.

There is even some ribald fun along the way, especially when a freshly re-imagined Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make their appearance. They aren’t what you expect. They are nimble and treacherous, like street cats on the prowl.

Claudius is on the prowl, too, as Act Two starts, aware of the grave threat that Hamlet presents, and he conspires with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to solve the problem. Gertrude – played by Alana Hibbert – big league but tottering by then, sings the first of her two affecting prophetic solo’s, “Somebody Wrote the Wrong Words,” as fate speeds up.

Laertes and the full company sing “Eye for an Eye” and the die is cast.

It all comes down to Claudius and Hamlet.

Costume designer Jeff Chief doubles the king and his step-son, both men in black, both lean and mean, although Hamlet is largely in wool-like fabric, softening the effect, keeping him on the side of flesh and blood, while Claudius is largely in leather, making him more reptilian. Claudius is Axl Rose meets Johnny Rotten meets villainy most foul.

The costumes are severe, Edwardian mixed with some Mad Max, while the female leads are often more flowing, leaving trails streaking behind them as they cross the stage. Anachronistic pants are used to good effect, especially when the doomed Ophelia jumps into the lap of the standing Hamlet, straddling him, hanging on for dear life.

Cameron MacDuffie, a veteran of the Centre who describes himself as a man who “lives out past where the sidewalk ends,” plays Claudius as a man who doesn’t give a damn about sidewalks. He is self-aware, as most of Shakespeare’s wrongdoers are, and not beneath self-pity, but his self is more selfish and slyly arrogant than it is anything else. He is the king and the kingdom is his person. Beyond him, nothing matters.

It is an astonishing performance.

When Gertrude sings “No Use Pretending,” which might be one of the best songs of the musical, and is certainly the most moving, near the end of Act Two, she is singing for herself, but for everyone else, too. Polonius and Ophelia are dead. The roof is about to cave in on everyone’s heads.

Fight director Anita Nittoly stages the penultimate sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes Robin Hood-style, lithe and desperate. It is thrilling and horrible, knowing there is poison. When the end comes only Horatio is left standing, and joined by the Ghost King in the ramparts, bears witness to what becomes of treachery and revenge.

“Kronborg – The Hamlet Rock Musical” breathes new life into a play more than four hundred years old, and dirty work as old as time. It resonates because it speaks to our own times.

“A nefarious transition of power has taken place in Denmark and the future is uncertain,” says Adam Brazier. “It is a story that is eerily familiar to the current landscape of the world at large.”

Early in Shakespeare’s play, in Act One, Scene 4, Marcellus says, “Something is rotten in Denmark.” The Hamlet of “Kronborg” doesn’t worry about to be or not to be. Something has got to be done. He rocks the castle to get the rot out. He gets it done.

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