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Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon helped launch made-in-Calgary theatre -- and now it’s back

The cast of The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon, at the Martha Cohen Theatre through March 10. (Courtesy ATP. Photo: Benjamin Laird) The cast of The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon, at the Martha Cohen Theatre through March 10. (Courtesy ATP. Photo: Benjamin Laird)
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Alberta Theatre Projects’ new production is a certified prairie classic that climaxes on a curling rink – and what could be more appropriate during a week when the Scotties Tournament of Hearts has taken over the town?

W.O. Mitchell’s Black Bonspiel of Wullie McCrimmon features Kevin Corey as Wullie, a shoemaker in a 1930s Foothills town of Wild Rose, who speculates one day that he would give anything to skip his team to the Brier, including doing business with the devil.

Unbeknownst to Wullie, the devil takes him up on the offer, setting in motion a staged curling match for the ages.

Corey has slid around on fake ice at the Martha Cohen Theatre before, most recently in Glory,  Alberta Theatre Projects'  2017 drama about a Depression-era women’s hockey team – and he also appeared in a production of Wullie MacCrimmon in the mid-1990s.

The play is part of Calgary theatre history too. It was produced at Theatre Calgary in March 1979 in a production directed by Guy Sprung, featuring a cast that included Stephen Hair, aka Ebenezer Scrooge, as The Reverend Pringle.

Black Bonspiel was considered a risky bet when it was first produced, according to former Calgary Herald critic Martin Morrow.

“There was a year - very early in Theatre Calgary’s history - when they did John Murrell’s Farther West, Sharon Pollock’s Blood Relations and W.O. Mitchell’s For People Who are in Peril on the Sea,” Morrow said, in an interview.

“They did three brand new - not Canadian but Calgary - plays in one season. Three Calgary plays!”

"The next year, (Artistic director) Rick (McNair) got Guy Sprung (to travel) from Montreal to direct a version of the Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon,” Morrow said. “And it was such an enormous hit – you couldn’t get tickets for love or money – and that thing was originally just a one act play W.O. had written, but they expanded it by turning that curling game into a huge, silly thing.

“The Devil’s team had MacBeth (on it!)” he added.

The late Brian Brennan, who was the Herald's theatre critic prior to Morrow taking over the job, also remembered the legend of Wullie MacCrimmon.

He said that after Mitchell had that surprise homegrown hit, that caused then-artistic director Rick McNair to see what else he had in is satchel full of stage stories.

“He said ‘I’ve got this thing called The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon. It’s not a stage play yet -- but I could make it one!” Brennan said, in a 2017 interview.

“The story I heard on that was Guy Sprung again came in to direct that play that when it came to the second act, it was just a stage direction. It said, ‘they curl the game’! Sprung said, “How am I supposed to get an hour out of this?'"

“And sure enough,” Brennan said. “It was a big hit.”

“People loved it,” Morrow said. “And I think theatre people in Calgary realized early on that if people could see themselves onstage or laugh – they’d come out.”

Those early successes led to Alberta Theatre Projects becoming one of the country’s leading producers of original Canadian plays, many of them through the Enbridge Playrites Festival.

Thursday night is also pizza night, so in addition to The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon, you get some pizza and a chat with ATP artistic director Haysam Kadri and Head of Wardrobe Caroline Broadley.

This year's production is being directed by Christian Goutsis.

Black Bonspiel runs through March 10 at the Martha Cohen Theatre in Arts Commons.

For tickets and information, go here.

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