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Denise Clarke invokes the spirt of Joni Mitchell in seance.
Ryan May/the Gauntlet

Theatre Preview: The spirit of Joni Mitchell at ATP

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Many call her the most important musician of her era. Her voice, like creased silk, cast out from thin lips heavy with nicotine to a world in need of understanding and compassion. And though brought up in a self-obsessed industry weaned on drugs, she gave the world her music. Songs like "Big Yellow Taxi", "A Case of You" and "Woodstock" formed the background of an upstart generation willing to stand against arrogant authority. She is Joni Mitchel. The spirit she evoked is revived in Alberta Theatre Project latest production, Allen MacInnis' Joni Mitchell: River.

"She's a very heart oriented human being," says director Denise Clarke of the revered singer on a cool Tuesday afternoon. "She wanted to give voice to the very tender, tender aspects of falling in love and her extreme rage with the situation of the world. She settled in L.A.; lived there during the height of the hippie thing. Just surrounded by all those wildly hedonistic crazy fun people. I think the lifestyle really took its toll and all of a sudden the marijuana smoke evaporated and they were left in the speed and meth driven world of L.A. and Hollywood and business."

With opening night looming ever so closely, exhaustion creeps around the edges of Denise's presence. Still, she remains ever so poised, happy to talk about the play.

"It's a concert of material staged in a very theatrical manner, but very simple, very elegant," explains Denise. "It's arranged in chapters that describe falling in love, and then looking at the world you're in love in--war-torn, difficult world that has so much hate and brutality in it and so much artifice. And also realizing your love affair is kind of in trouble, so you try digging yourself out."

As ethereally abstract as the narrative seems, Denise has guided the play into something palpable for audiences. This isn't the first time she's been involved in bringing the works of a renowned Canadian songsmith to stage. Years ago, she was one of the key players in bringing Doing Leonard Cohen to One Yellow Rabbit to great success.

"This is sort of Doing Joni Mitchell, with the obvious component of the music being such a huge part. I did think about the fact that it worked so powerfully for us, in that respect, because you look at 28 songs lined up, you think 'oh man, is that going to be like hard to construct.'"

Denise has enlisted the help of a talented cast of actors and a band to provide the musical backdrop for all of the songs. The play consists of 28 songs connected by dramatic transitions to help fill out the narrative. All will do their damnedest to pay proper tribute to the spirit of Joni Mitchell.

"We've got this smoking band in the room," exclaims Denise. "And the actors were able to respond and open up. Pop singers and stars don't worry how pretty they are, they're really personality centered. Cohen would never say 'I knew I was a great gifted vocalist', but it didn't stop him. So, that was the line to tread, to make sure they remembered. It plays between the performance aspects of being a pop star and going 'oh God I'm crumbling a bit.'"

Not that audiences should worry about a night of snobby theatre not meant for the ignorant masses or an evening of weeping actors. This isn't art for the sake of art, or even a play too involved in its layers of meaning in relation to the cosmos. None of that here, just a good old fashion night of song on stage.

"I was very aware of the fact I could take a different take on this, but then realizing I don't want to wreck them [the songs]. Some we've completely re-imagined, but I certainly did not want people to go 'they wrecked Big Yellow Taxi,'" Denise confides. "My sister would kill me. It's her favourite song. 'It's not going to be some avant-garde version, is it?' And actually, it won't."

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