By Ed Staskus
When “Bittergirl: The Musical” came back to the cabaret-style Mack Theatre in downtown Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island, it came back because it had played to laugh-out-loud crowds during its world premiere there in 2015, and everyone knew the home-grown Canadian merry-go-round about breaking up was worth seeing, or seeing again in 2017.
Based on a 1999 play lived died and written by Annabel Fitzsimmons, Alison Lawrence, and Mary Francis Moore, one of them divorced, one dropped like a hot potato, and one in the whirlpool of being dumped, and their later-on best-selling book, “BITTERGIRL: Getting Over Getting Dumped”, the musical is the best of the play and the book and 60s doo-wop mixed with 70s mega-hits.
“When he danced he held me tight, and when he walked me home that night, all the stars were shining bright, and then he kissed me.”
The show is a mash up of a live band song dance high emotion low comedy trenchant wisecracking and rip-roaring showcase performances. It’s about the one sure-fire way of hurting somebody’s feelings, which is to break up with them.
“Baby, baby, where did our love go? Ooh, don’t you want me, don’t you want me no more?”
Hooking up and heartbreak are as girl group as it gets. Taylor Swift’s ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ was still fifty years in the making when Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and Motown were going strong. The Shirelles were the first to hit number one on the HOT 100 in 1961 with ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’.
When the musical comedy wrapped up its second sold-out run at the end of August, and the last of more than 20,000 theatergoers had left the 200-seat Mack Theatre, the young woman putting away bottles of vodka and rinsing out cocktail glasses behind the bar on the far side of the stage was the one person who had seen the show more times than anyone else, save the cast, crew, and front of the house.
“I love the show,” said Natalia Agon, the Mack’s bar manager. “Sometimes on my nights off I go see it with my mom or my husband or my friends. It’s so fun and I’m so proud of it.” Since starting work at the theatre earlier in the summer she has seen “Bittergirl” close to 40 times.
The 25-year-old traced an improbable path to her first sighting of the show. She almost didn’t make it. A native of Bogota, Colombia, it took a death threat to shove her off Colombian soil and land her on the red dirt of Prince Edward Island. The threat to her family came from terrorists, in the mail, on embossed stationary, declaring them a military target.
“Bogota was good,” she said. “I grew up there. My dad worked hard, and my mom worked hard, to give us what we needed. Starting over from zero was definitely hard.”
Bogota is a 500-year-old city in the middle of Colombia, the capital city and largest city in the country. It sprawls across a high plateau in the Andes. More than 10 million people live in the metro area, the economic, political, and cultural center of northwestern South America. “Most Noble and Most Loyal City” is Bogota’s motto.
Natalia’s parents met in Panama City, Panama. “They were poor when they got together. They would buy clothes or cigarettes in Panama, where they didn’t have taxes, and bring it back to Colombia, and sell it,” she said. “They did every job on the planet.”
By the time she started school her parents had scrimped and saved and purchased and owned and operated a 1,000-acre beef and dairy farm four hours away from Bogota, while still living in the city. “We went there every weekend, my two brothers and me, whether you liked it or not.”
At the same time, “bittergirl” the stage play took off, playing from bliss to breakup and back to full houses in Toronto, traveling to London, England, and laughing its way to off-Broadway in NYC. It was the trifecta, the original recipe, extra crispy, and the Colonel’s special.
“I’ll make you happy, baby, just wait and see, for every kiss you give me I’ll give you three, oh, since the day I saw you, I have been waiting for you.”
It was a long way from the little Toronto café where the three writers dreamed up the loving and hurting story, based on themselves and everyone they knew. “We’ve had some adventures together!” said Mary Francis Moore.
“Every night our audiences were waiting for us as we came offstage with their very own stories,” the co-authors have said.
‘I got dumped in the hospital ten minutes after giving birth…’
‘He left me for my little sister and now he sits across from me at Christmas dinner…’
‘My husband worked for CSIS and said ‘You’ll never be able to find me’ and I never have…’
“Swear to God. All true.” Truth is stranger than it used to be. The snag about some hook-ups is that they’re not worth the break-up.
“My parents had a big problem with FARC,” said Natalia Agon. “It was because of the farm, about paying the vaccine.” Besides the coca trade, in other words, cocaine, which sustained the leftist group during Latin America’s longest running war, extortion ran a close second in the financial affairs of the rebels. The money payments were known as vacuna, or the vaccine.
Scottish Border Reivers ran a racket called black mal five hundred years ago, the Sicilian Mafia has always understood the protection trade, and there is little confusion about what the Russian Mafia means when they say krysha up.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was formed in 1964, a peasant army that grew to number almost 20,000 militants controlling close to 40 percent of the country. The 50-year civil war, recently ended, displaced 7 million people from their homes and resulted in 220,000 deaths, among them 11,000 people killed by land mines.
“My dad paid the vaccine for a long time,” said Natalia. “But, once they saw they could use you for other purposes, whether storing drugs or storing guns, it was a yes or no answer, no matter whether you wanted to do it or not.”
Pedro and Maria Agon said no to cocaine and guns.
Soon afterwards, just before Christmas 2007, they got a letter in the mail. “It was on thick white paper, official looking, super fancy, with their FARC logo on it. We just left, our house, the farm, all my friends I had known all my life. One day my mom said, pack a bag, you’re not going to school on Monday.”
She packed pictures and letters from her friends and the blanket she was swaddled in when she was brought home from the hospital when she was born. “You can’t do that, my mom said. You have to leave everything.”
They left almost everything.
“We got out of there fast.”
The Agon’s were able to transfer property to sisters brothers aunts uncles, as well as convert some assets to cash. They were uncertain about relocating anywhere else in South America. They considered the United States a safe haven, but Natalia’s mother nixed moving there.
“She just didn’t like it, even though she had traveled to the States many times. She never felt welcome. She always felt a racial discrimination, even though she was going there to spend money. So we looked at a map and there was Canada. There was no thought process behind it, we just went.”
“Bittergirl: The Musical” took the Charlottetown Festival by storm when it opened in 2015, a crowd-pleaser bringing the howls and selling out all summer. Bitterness never felt better, nor misery in the hands of singers and dancers belting it out and mansplaining how he’s lost his magic and you’ve got to go.
“He’s a rebel and he’ll never ever be any good, he’s a rebel ‘cause he never ever does what he should, but just because he doesn’t do what everybody else does, that’s no reason why I can’t give him all my love.”
It went on to become a north of the border success story, having since been produced coast to coast, Edmonton, Manitoba, Vancouver.
Nine months after landing in Toronto, the Agon’s got their Permanent Resident cards. “It was a hard process,” said Natalia. “There was a lot of scrutiny, but it was never the you don’t deserve to be here kind of scrutiny.” The family rented an apartment and Natalia graduated from high school in 2010. She attended Centennial College, majoring in Food and Nutrition Management, and worked part-time in a nursing home.
In 2014 she and her husband-to-be, Miguel Cervantes, moved to Prince Edward Island. “I knew I needed a school that was going to give me a lot of interaction with professors and where there were internships to become a registered dietician.” She has an internship on tap at Humber River Hospital in Toronto when she graduates next year.
Natalia Agon enrolled at UPEI in Charlottetown. Her husband worked his way up to become the executive chef at Mavor’s, a contemporary eatery part of the Confederation Centre of the Arts. The menu ranges from the Moona Lisa burger, featuring homegrown PEI beef, to four-course dinners paired with Scottish whiskies.
Early in 2017, as part of her studies at UPEI, she joined the group Farmers Helping Farmers, traveling to Kenya, where they worked with the Wakulima Dairy in the Mukerweini District. She also helped distribute female hygiene kits to the Karaguririo Primary School.
“We gave the students a girl empowerment talk,” she said. “Their eyes were bright with excitement.”
Last year, looking for work, she applied at the Mack Theatre. She got the job. “I run the day-to-day operations and I’m the head bartender,” she said. She trains and schedules the other bartenders, keeps a firm hand on the inventory and cash register, and trims the sails on show days. Above all, all summer long she mixed Cowards, Mounties, and Magic Men.
“Those are the names of the three ex’s of the show, and they’re our three feature cocktails. The definite crowd favorite is the Mountie. I always tell everyone, I think you’re going to like it even more once the show starts.” At the break, however, the strains of ‘Be My Baby’ dying away, most order the drink they can relate to the most. Magic Men and Cowards give the vodka-heavy Mountie a run for his money among the crowd pressing at the bar, no matter that Mounties are renowned for saving damsels in distress.
“Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough, to keep me from getting to you, babe.”
“Things have changed a lot in Colombia since we left,” said Natalia.
She has since returned several times for visits. Nevertheless, when her father went back to South America, the farm he bought was on the Ecuador border with Colombia. “He’s in love with the land. He can’t get enough of it.” One of her older brothers, a doctor, lives in Mexico and the other older brother lives in Spain. Her mother spends divergent parts of her year with her husband and far-flung children.
The Agon’s are a family of expatriates by necessity, not by choice. “My husband is from Guatemala, but he came to Canada when he was a one-year-old and never went back,” said Natalia. “His Spanish is broken. But I was born in Colombia, raised in Colombia, and most of my values are from being raised there. I loved it. Leaving was an emotional struggle.”
Although it’s true that loss is the same as change, and the world is always going to keep changing, surviving and coping with loss is difficult, especially when a chunk of your childhood goes missing. It leaves a hole in the world. It’s the price everyone pays for everything they’ve ever had, or will have.
“Weren’t you the one who tried to break me with goodbye, did you think I’d crumble, did you think I’d lay down and die, oh no not I, I will survive.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s a boyfriend or your birthplace. It doesn’t matter whether it’s played for laughs on stage or it plays out in real life. There’s a thin line between humor and hurt.
“I never get tired of the show,” said Natalia. “The ex and the girls do a great job portraying everyone, our emotions, all we’ve been through. It’s happened to me, when you’re dumped for no reason, or it’s not you, it’s me. I’ve definitely heard that one before, and I’ve totally said it, too.”
Behind the bar she hears what everyone has to say about “Bittergirl”. When a case of nerves orders a cocktail she mixes up a Coward. “The moms, maybe when they’ve had one too many, remember ordering pizza, eating their feelings. It’s just heartbreak.”
One day can be sweet as can be and the next day bitter as all get out. “You don’t know if you should laugh or cry,” said Natalia. Everyone has their share of heartbreak. If you’re singing about it, you’ve lived it. Natalia Agon has lived it and sung along with songs about it, but isn’t recording a full album of it.
Whenever bitterness tries to get in on the act, she offers it a Magic Man. “That’s my favorite,” she said. The Magic Man is a south of the border blend of Kahlua, Pepsi, milk, and crème de cacoa.
Sometimes when husbands and boyfriends are at the bar at the Mack at intermission getting drinks for wives and girlfriends, but can’t remember what they want, she suggests they “go check with the boss.”
She’s not a bitter girl.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.