Playwright David Belke takes love of film to the stage in Bless You Billy Wilder
“I’ve certainly thought about making a movie,” he says, “but I must admit my first love is theatre. There’s something about the energy, the life, the connection with audience members who are participants in the night. With movies and TV, you just sit there passively. Everything is spoonfed to you. If someone in a movie is being rescued by a helicopter, you have to see a helicopter. In theatre, you can mime it all. You can use your imagination.”
Unless it’s Miss Saigon, of course. Which brings us to the case of Bob Fosse, the only guy Belke knows of who is successful on both Broadway and in Hollywood. Guys like Sam Shepard don’t seem to manage the transition. Only a huge overblown musical spectacle has enough power to bridge these two fundamentally different methods of storytelling. Think Cabaret. Think Chicago.
Belke’s Bless You Billy Wilder, which plays through Nov. 20 at the Varscona Theatre in a remount of his 2002 Fringe show, is a homage to not one, but two major filmmakers. One is the titular subject whose wide range includes both Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard. The other is Erich Von Stroheim, the great silent film director who once made a very long and very grim film called Greed.
The main character in Bless You Billy Wilder is Emile (Troy O’Donnell), a failed screenwriter who’s made it his passion to revive Greed to its original 10-hour form. That’s longer than all three Lord of the Rings movies combined and there’s no sound. The second improbable thing in this story is that Emile has been given a government grant to complete this ridiculous project, and the third is that he’s hired a painter named Patience (Kendra Connor) to do the dialogue cards – and she’s never seen a single movie in her life. The plot doesn’t exactly write itself, but as Belke has shown in the past, he loves throwing wildly disparate elements and characters into a mixing bowl and seeing what comes out.
This is a relationship story at heart. As Emile and Patience start working together, “they start building a friendship, a camaraderie that sustains them, that saves them both.”
Meanwhile, Belke gets to act out a cinephile’s dream: How to go about introducing film to someone who doesn’t even know what it is, like an alien or a revived caveman or something. Where to begin? With Greed, obviously.
“Human beings do not come off very well in this movie,” Belke says. “It’s driven by, well, greed, and vice and lust and desire and jealousy and revenge. Erich Von Stroheim’s world is just not a very pleasant place to live in. Von Stroheim is a presence in the play, he haunts the play, his ideas are haunting Emile as well. That’s why Billy Wilder becomes important – someone who believes in humanity and the world and can see value in the most bizarre, dismal misfits in the world.”
You can almost taste the richness of the cinematic metaphor.
Asked to choose one of his plays to be made into a movie, Belke pauses, thinks hard and comes up with visions of set design, “The centuries-wide sweep of ‘Ten Times Two’ would work well in a movie. The end of the world of ‘Blackpool and Parrish’ would be kind of fun to play with. You could actually bring Armageddon to the audience instead of keeping it off stage.” But then there’s the intimate close-ups that only film can deliver, he adds. Hard choice. Belke’s own output is nearing 50 plays. He’s still behind fellow Edmonton playwright Stewart Lemoine – “but he’s with a theatre company that does nothing but Stewart Lemoine plays,” Belke says. “I have share the season with Sam Shepard.”